Benevolent Sexism-“The truth about sexism seems stranger than fiction”

Once upon a time, there was a really nice man. Just for arguments sake, let’s call him Rudolph..

 

Bit too much like a reindeer?

 

Okay.

 

How about Rupert?

 

Murdoch immediately comes to mind, not a good look.

 

I know, how about Randolph, or Randy for short. Anyway Randy is this pretty demure sort of guy that – well, read on…

 

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/04/02/benevolent-sexism/

 

Something can’t actually be sexist if it’s really, really nice, right?

I mean, if someone compliments me on my looks or my cooking, that’s  not sexist. That’s awesome! I should be thrilled that I’m being noticed  for something positive!

Yet there are many comments that, while  seemingly  complimentary, somehow still feel wrong. These comments may focus on an  author’s appearance rather than the content of her writing, or mention how surprising it is that she’s a woman, being that her field is mostly filled with men. Even  though these remarks can  sometimes feel good to hear – and no one is  denying that this type of  comment can feel good, especially in  the right context – they  can also cause a feeling of unease,  particularly when one is in the  position of trying to draw attention  towards her work rather than  personal qualities like her gender  or appearance.

In  social psychology, these seemingly-positive-yet-still-somewhat-unsettling comments and behaviours have a name: Benevolent Sexism.  Although it is tempting to  brush this experience off as an overreaction  to compliments or a  misunderstanding of benign  intent, benevolent sexism  is both real and  insidiously dangerous.

What Is Benevolent Sexism?

In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske wrote a paper on the concept of ambivalent sexism, noting that despite common beliefs, there are actually two different kinds of sexist attitudes and behavior. Hostile sexism is what most people think of when they picture “sexism” – angry,  explicitly negative attitudes towards women. However, the authors note,  there is also something called benevolent sexism:

We define benevolent sexism as a set of  interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing  women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively  positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit  behaviours typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or  intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p.  491).

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of  protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like  hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men  (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).

Yes, there’s actually an official name for all of those comments and  stereotypes that can somehow feel both nice and wrong at the same time, like the belief that women are “delicate flowers” who need to be  protected by men, or the notion that women have the special gift of  being “more kind and caring” than their male counterparts. It  might sound like a compliment, but it still counts as sexism.

For a very recent example of how benevolent sexism might play out in our everyday lives, take a look at this satirical piece, which jokingly re-writes Albert Einstein’s obituary.

To quote:

He made sure he shopped for groceries every night on the  way home  from work, took the garbage out, and hand washed the  antimacassars. But  to his step daughters he was just Dad. ”He was  always there for us,”  said his step daughter and first cousin once  removed Margo.

Albert Einstein, who died on Tuesday, had another life at work, where   he sometimes slipped away to peck at projects like showing that atoms   really exist. His discovery of  something called the photoelectric   effect won him a coveted Nobel Prize.

Looks weird, right? Kind of like something you would never actually see in print?

Yet the author of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s obituary didn’t hesitate before writing the following about her last week:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband  from job to job, and took eight years off from work  to raise three  children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was  also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a  propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping  out of their orbits.

In fact, Obituaries editor William McDonald still sees nothing wrong with it. In his words,  he’s “surprised…[because] it never occurred to [him] that this would  be read as sexist,” and if he had to re-write it again, he still  “wouldn’t do anything differently.”

I want to make one thing perfectly clear. There’s not a problem with mentioning Brill’s family, friends, and loved ones. It’s not  a problem to note how wonderfully Brill balanced her domestic and  professional lives. Brill was a female scientist during a time when very  few women could occupy that role in society, and that means something  truly important.

But the problem here is really that if “Yvonne” were “Yvan,”  the obit would have looked fundamentally different. If we’re talking up  the importance of work-life balance and familial roles for women but  we’re not also mentioning those things about men, that’s a problem. If a  woman’s accomplishments must be accompanied by a reassurance that she  really was “a good Mom,” but a man’s accomplishments are allowed to  stand on their own, that’s a problem. And lest you think that I only care about women, let’s not act like this  doesn’t have a real and dangerous impact on men, too. If a man spends years of his life as a  doting father and caring husband, yet his strong devotion to his family  is not considered an important fact for his obituary because he’s  male…then yes, that’s also a big problem.

The fact that so many people don’t understand why it might be unnerving that the writer’s idea for a good story arc in Brill’s obituary was to lead with her role as a wife and mother, and then let the surprise that she was actually a really smart rocket scientist come in later as a shocking twist? That’s benevolent sexism.

Why is Benevolent Sexism a Problem?

Admittedly, this research begs an obvious question. If benevolently  sexist comments seem like nothing more than compliments, why are they  problematic? Is it really “sexism” if the content of the statements seems positive towards women?

After all, the obituary noted nothing more than how beloved Brill was as a wife and a mother. Why should anyone be upset by that? Sure, men wouldn’t be written about in the same way, but who cares? It’s so nice!

Well, for one thing, benevolently sexist statements aren’t all sunshine and butterflies. They often end up implying that  women are weak, sensitive creatures that need to be “protected.” While  this may seem positive to some, for others – especially women in  male-dominated fields –  it creates a damaging stereotype.

As Glick and Fiske themselves  note in their seminal paper:

We do not consider benevolent sexism a good thing, for  despite the positive feelings it may indicate for the perceiver, its  underpinnings lie in traditional stereotyping and masculine dominance  (e.g., the man as the provider and woman as his dependent), and its  consequences are often damaging. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily  experienced as benevolent by the recipient. For example, a man’s comment  to a female coworker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned,  may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional  (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491-492).

In a later paper, Glick and Fiske went on to determine the extent to which 15,000 men and women across 19 different  countries endorse both hostile and benevolently sexist statements. First of all, they found that hostile and benevolent sexism  tend to correlate highly across nations. So, it is not the case that people  who endorse hostile sexism don’t tend to endorse benevolent sexism,  whereas those who endorse benevolent sexism look nothing like the ”real” sexists. On the contrary, those who endorsed benevolent  sexism were likely to admit that they also held explicit, hostile attitudes towards  women (although one does not necessarily have to endorse these hostile attitudes in order to engage in benevolent sexism).

File:Chemical compound being drawn.jpgSecondly, they discovered that benevolent sexism was a significant predictor of nationwide gender inequality, independent of the effects of hostile sexism. In countries where the men were more likely to endorse  benevolent sexism, even when controlling for hostile sexism, men also lived longer, were more educated, had higher literacy rates, made significantly more money, and actively participated in the political and economic spheres more than their female counterparts. The warm, fuzzy  feelings surrounding benevolent sexism come at a cost, and  that cost is often actual, objective gender equality.

The Insidious Nature of Benevolent Sexism

A recent paper by Julia Becker and Stephen Wright details even more  of the insidious ways that benevolent sexism might be harmful for both  women and social activism. In a series of experiments, women were  exposed to statements that either illustrated hostile sexism (e.g.  “Women are too easily offended”) or benevolent sexism (e.g. “Women have a  way of caring that men are not capable of in the same way.”) The  results are quite discouraging; when the women read statements  illustrating benevolent sexism, they were less willing to engage in  anti-sexist collective action, such as signing a petition, participating  in a rally, or generally “acting against sexism.” Not only that, but  this effect was partially mediated by the fact that women who were  exposed to benevolent sexism were more likely to think that there are  many advantages to being a woman and were also more likely to engage in system justification,  a process by which people justify the status quo and believe that there  are no longer problems facing disadvantaged groups (such as women) in  modern day society. Furthermore, women who were exposed to hostile  sexism actually displayed the opposite effect – they were more likely to intend to engage in collective action, and more willing to fight against sexism in their everyday lives.

How might this play out in a day-to-day context? Imagine that there’s  an anti-female policy being brought to a vote, like a regulation that  would make it easier for local businesses to fire pregnant women once  they find out that they are expecting. If you are collecting signatures  for a petition or trying to gather women to protest this policy and  those women were recently exposed to a group of men making comments  about the policy in question, it would be significantly easier to gain  their support and vote down the policy if the men were commenting that  pregnant women should be fired because they were dumb for  getting pregnant in the first place. However, if they instead happened  to mention that women are much more compassionate than men and make  better stay-at-home parents as a result, these remarks might actually  lead these women to be less likely to fight an objectively sexist  policy.

“I Mean, Is Sexism Really Still A Problem In 2013?”

We often hear people claiming that  sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination that seem to be  outdated are “no longer really a problem.” Some people legitimately  believe this to be true, while others (particularly women and racial  minorities) find it ridiculous that others could be so blind to the  problems that still exist. So why does this disparity exist? Why is it  so difficult for so many people to see that sexism and racism are still  alive and thriving?

Maybe the answer lies right here, on the benevolent side of  prejudice. While “old fashioned” forms of discrimination may have died  down quite a bit (after all, it really isn’t quite as socially  acceptable in most areas of the world to be as explicitly sexist and/or  racist as people have been in the past), more “benevolent” forms of  discrimination still very much exist, and they have their own sneaky  ways of suppressing equality. Unaffected bystanders (or perpetrators)  may construe benevolently sexist sentiments as harmless or even  beneficial; in fact, as demonstrated by Becker and Wright, targets may  even feel better about themselves after exposure to benevolently sexist  statements. This could be, in some ways, even worse than explicit,  hostile discrimination; because it hides under the guise of compliments,  it’s easy to use benevolent sexism to demotivate people against  collective action or convince people that there is no longer a need to  fight for equality.

However, to those people who still may be tempted to argue  that benevolent sexism is nothing more than an overreaction to  well-intentioned compliments, let me pose this question: What happens  when there is a predominant stereotype saying that women are better  stay-at-home parents than men because they are inherently more caring,  maternal, and compassionate? It seems nice enough, but how does this  ideology affect the woman who wants to continue to work full time after  having her first child and faces judgment from her colleagues who accuse  her of neglecting her child? How does it affect the man who wants to  stay at home with his newborn baby, only to discover that his company  doesn’t offer paternity leave because they assume that women are the  better candidates to be staying at home?

At the end of the day, “good intent” is not a panacea. Benevolent  sexism may very well seem like harmless flattery to many people, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t insidiously dangerous.

To conclude, I’ll now ask you to think about recent events surrounding Elise Andrew, creator of the wildly popular I F–king Love Science Facebook page. When she shared her personal Twitter account with the page’s 4.4 million fans, many commented on the link because they were absolutely SHOCKED…about what? Why, of course, about the fact that she is female.

“I had no idea that IFLS had such a beautiful face!”

“holy hell, youre a HOTTIE!”

“you mean you’re a girl, AND you’re beautiful? wow, i just liked science a lil bit more today ^^”

“I   thought that because of all the ways you were so proud to spout off “I   f–king love science” in a difient swary manner against people who  hated  sware words being used that you was a dude.”

“you’re a girl!? I always imagined you as a guy; don’t know why; well, nice to see to how you look like i guess”

“What?!!? Gurlz don’t like science!  LOL Totally thought you were a dude.”

“It’s   not just being a girl that’s the surprise, but being a fit girl! (For   any non-Brits, fit, in this context, means   hot/bangable/shagtastic/attractive).”

Right. See, that’s the thing. Elise felt uncomfortable with this, as  did many others out there who saw it — and rightfully so. Yet many  people would call her (and others like her) oversensitive for feeling negatively about statements that appear to be compliments. Many thought that Elise should have been happy that others were calling her attractive, or pointing out that it’s idiosyncratic for her to be a female who loves science. What Elise (and many others) felt was the benevolently sexist side of things — the side that perpetuates a stereotype that women (especially attractive women) don’t “do” science, and that the most noteworthy thing to comment on about a female scientist is what she looks like.

Unfortunately, it’s very likely that no one  walked away from this experience having learned anything. People who could  tell that this was offensive were obviously willing to  recognize it as such, but people who endorsed those statements just thought they were being nice.  Because they weren’t calling her incompetent or unworthy, none of them were willing to recognize it as sexism, even when explicitly told that that’s what it was — even though, based on research, we know that  this sort of behavior has actual, meaningful consequences for society and for gender equality.

That right there?

That’s the real problem with benevolent sexism.

 

“Benevolent Sexism” Is Not An Oxymoron… And Has Insidious Consequences for Women:

http://www.sagepub.com/press/2011/oct/SAGE_PWQ-StudyofAmbivalentSexismv3.sp

 

 

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