The Dangers of Benevolent Sexism

Hostile and Benevolent Sexism
Everyone is familiar with hostile sexism: the rude jokes, discrimination, harassment, and explicit opinions of gender inferiority. In general, this attitude is condemned in our society, and laws are in place to at least try to minimize employment discrimination and outright harassment.

However, sexism may come in more subtle forms, sometimes labeled benevolent sexism. Paternalist traditions such as opening doors, paying for meals and carrying things may be seen as sexist if they imply a lack of competence on the part of the woman to do these things herself. Patronizing comments may involve ambivalent content, such as praise combined with an implied devalued position (“It’s okay, honey, don’t worry your pretty head about it”). Women may be seen as warm but incompetent, or as needing men’s help. Examples of benevolent sexism are often less clear-cut than hostile sexism.

A 2007 study at the University of Liege looked at the effects of these two types of sexism on women performing job-related tasks. Specifically, women in a trade school or college doing job interview training were told about a potential job opening up at a place that had previously employed only men. The training consisted of (1) a description of the job, and then (2) taking what was described as a standard job interview test involving a simple task.


The Job Description
What the experimenters did was alter the standard job description slightly to add on either hostile sexism or benevolent sexism, versus a control condition with no changes. For example, the hostile sexism description added: “Industry is now restricted to employ a given percentage of people of the weaker sex. I hope women here won’t be offended, they sometimes get so easily upset. You’ll work with men only, but don’t believe what those feminists are saying on TV, they probably exaggerate women’s situation in industry simply to get more favors.” Pretty outright sexist.

The benevolent sexism description added: “Industry is now restricted to choose women instead of men in case of equal performance. You’ll work with men only, but don’t worry, they will cooperate and help you to get used to the job. They know that the new employee could be a woman, and they agreed to give you time and help.” The sexism is less obvious here, but the idea is that women might feel talked down to or sense paternalism in the implications that they need extra help.

The Task
Then each of the women who had gotten these job descriptions was given either a word memorization task or a spatial task, and afterwards a brief questionnaire that indirectly asked about their motivation on the task and any perceived sexism in the job description.

Regardless of whether the job description was in written form or given aloud by a man, and regardless of what task they were given, the women did worse on the task in the benevolent sexism condition than they did in the hostile sexism or control conditions.

This is a little counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t the hostile sexism be at least as bad? The questionnaires given afterward showed that women were equally motivated to perform in both sexism conditions, so it wasn’t like those who got the outright sexist condition compensated by trying harder in order to prove the sexists wrong. Furthermore, when asked about the unpleasantness of the job context/description, women found both forms of sexism equally unpleasant (compared to the neutral control description). So they were certainly perceiving something bothersome even in the benevolent condition.

However, in the benevolent condition there was not a perception of sexism, per se, whereas in the hostile condition there was. So when women confront hostile sexism, they can identify it as sexism, writing it off as a flaw of the one writing the job description. When they confront benevolent sexism, it is difficult to attribute sexism because it is less straight-forward and may be masked among pleasantries or praise.

The authors argue that being unable to identify the sexism and attribute the perceived unpleasantness to it leads to an ambiguous situation which is harder to deal with. This may preoccupy the mind, causing subsequent worse performance on the tasks used to test for the job training. The cognitive load keeps the mind busy in the case of benevolent sexism, whereas with hostile sexism, the sexism can be identified and some method of coping instituted, so performance does not suffer.

Certainly hostile sexism is not acceptable (which is why there are norms and in some cases laws against it), but it appears its effects on task performance may not be as damaging as benevolent sexism in the short term. The authors of the study suggest that informing women of the dangers of benevolent sexism may reduce ambiguity and uncertainty (and the corresponding cognitive load), preserving performance.

Dardenne, B., Dumont, M., & Bollier, T. (2007). Insidious dangers of benevolent sexism: Consequences for women’s performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(5), 764-779.

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5 Responses to The Dangers of Benevolent Sexism

  1. KAS says:

    Benevolent Sexism, what a great term. Yes, sexism is everywhere. I get it mostly in referencing me and lack of respect (like, hon, dear etc.) and respect as in the same tasks are looked upon as support that a male counterpart does and it is looked upon as organizational or management.

    Could be much worse though & I call it when I see it- which usually nips it in the but!


  2. ‘Call it when you see it’ — yeah, this is the key, I think. Being able to recognize it, even in subtle forms, is central to addressing it and mitigating indirect effects like those written about here.

  3. As an aside, a couple researchers at University of Florida found recently that sexist men make more money. Men who believe in ‘traditional’ gender roles tend to have higher income than those who believe in equality. (Women who believe in equality make a little more than women with the ‘old fashioned’ views). Education, IQ, occupation, hours worked, and region lived in don’t fully account for the effect.

    All I have to say is…what the fuck. Likely there’s another variable or two behind the scenes that accounts for these findings (I haven’t seen the primary source), but either way, the idea that sexist men make so much more money is absurd.

  4. The fourth commenter is spam. Google the sentences and you’ll see.

    I struggle with benevolent sexism here in Cape Town, South Africa. Some people see nothing wrong with it. And that limits my social circle. Oh, and it also makes life at work a bit tense; people here must think I have no humour :(

  5. Pingback: Feminism: Ambient Sexism » {blog}

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