Benevolent Sexism Is the Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing That Silently Stifles Women, Says New Study


In the war against sexism, we are taught to be resilient against slut-shaming, sandwich jokes, and gendered slurs, but what about when sexism is presented as chivalry? A new study suggests that micro aggressions are shown to be even more problematic than hostile sexism, especially because they are more difficult to pin down.

Jin Goh and Judith Hall of Northeastern University have developed the first study to capture both nonverbal and verbal expressions of hostile and benevolent sexism:

Hostile sexism is an antipathy or dislike of women, and often comes to the fore as dominant and derogatory behavior in an effort to maintain power. Benevolent sexism is less negative on the surface and more paternalistic, reflecting a chivalrous and subjectively positive view of women. Men who demonstrate this “well-intentioned” sexism see women as warm and pure yet helpless, incompetent and in need of men’s protection.

What makes the latter so distressing is that these actions are often seen as simply polite behavior. It is not expected for a woman to be insulted by being described as “inherently maternal” or “inherently kind,” but the reality is that these comments are filled with internalized concepts about gender that, while possibly well-meaning, only enforce limited ideas about gender norms.

Goh and Hall conducted the study by examining the social interactions between 27 pairs of undergraduate men and women. Their actions were filmed as they played a trivia game and later chatted, without specific instructions on how to behave. Nonverbal cues, reports of their interactions, and other manners were scrutinized.

It was found that the more hostile sexist men were seen as less approachable and friendly; they even smiled a lot less when speaking. Those who displayed benevolent sexism were seen as friendlier and warmer by others, and they were more prone to smiling. Even their speech displayed patience and positive vocabulary—which is what makes benevolent sexism so dangerous.

“While many people are sensitive to sexist verbal offenses, they may not readily associate sexism with warmth and friendliness,” argues Goh. “Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.”

“Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level,” elaborates Hall. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless.”

The study can be found in the academic journal, Sex Roles 2015.

Image c/o 20th Century Fox/Bazmark Productions

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