It’s Time to Talk About Benevolent Sexism

Some sexism is obvious to identify and call out, whether it’s coming from others or yourself. Benevolent sexism, as the name implies, is trickier: It might seem benign, or even complimentary — but in reality, it reinforces outdated and gross attitudes about gender and what women are capable of.

Understanding benevolent sexism can help you identify it and learn to resist it, whether it’s happening at work, on the street or at home.

The concept of “benevolent sexism” is rooted in “ambivalent sexism,” a larger theoretical framework developed by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske that divides acts of sexism into hostile and benevolent acts. An example of hostile sexism might be claiming that women aren’t smart enough to succeed in STEM careers, or saying that women aren’t fit for military combat, making a sweeping negative comment about women that has no basis in reality.

Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, wraps up sexism in a compliment that initially may sound positive — like saying that women are naturally nurturing.

Benevolent sexism functions indirectly to box women into limited social roles. Claiming that women are meant to be mothers and that they’re better caregivers than men, for example, implies that they should stay home to care for children and family members. It also makes women who aren’t interested in these things, or who struggle with their relationship to their kids, feel bad.

Suggesting that women are better at domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning also suggests these roles are their responsibility. Focusing on looks implies that a woman’s appearance is more important than who she is or what she does.

These remarks can also serve to pull attention away from a woman’s accomplishments, devaluing her as a person. This is a particularly big problem for high-profile women: Think of the classic dichotomy in red carpet questions, where women are asked what they’re wearing and men are asked what they’re working on. Or how obituaries for famous women often lead with information about their families and domestic skills — “baked great cookies” comes before “wrote programs that became a key part of the backbone of the internet,” for instance.

Like other -isms, benevolent sexism can interact with racism, ableism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, amplifying their effects. For instance, making comments about black women as nurturing is a throwback to the “mammy” stereotype, while saying that Asian women are more intuitive plays into the belief that they’re meant to entertain other people’s every whim.

Benevolent sexism also played a powerful role in the racism of the South, with men suggesting that they needed to “defend Southern womanhood” — by which they meant specifically white women. Meanwhile, crimes or acts of cruelty are sometimes framed as “worse” when they impact disabled women, a patronizing trend that makes it seem like disabled women are lesser and in need of protection.

Usually, benevolent sexism isn’t deliberate. Most people aren’t setting out to harm women when they make these kinds of comments, and often they think they’re complimentary. That can make benevolent sexism both harder to spot when it happens, and challenging to eradicate. After all, it can be difficult to call out comments made with good intent; “I was just trying to compliment you!” or “Sheesh, why do you have to be so sensitive?” are common reactions.

When you make comments about women, first stop to ask whether you’re making a sweeping generalization about women as a whole; if so, there’s a high probability it’s sexist. And when you’re talking about a specific woman, ask yourself whether you’d say the same thing about a man — or whether you’re subtly undercutting her accomplishments and humanity by playing up stereotypical tropes about femininity.

Think about it this way: It would be weird to lead a profile of President Barak Obama with his family chili recipe and a discussion of his cooking skills, right? And obituaries for President George H.W. Bush didn’t open with heartwarming tales of milk and cookie raids with Secret Service agents – yes, this actually happened.

This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to compliment women, or that you can’t mention a woman’s interest and skill in stereotypically feminine activities. Just be thoughtful about it, considering what you choose to stress and why; and it’s worth remembering that while feminized activities like crafts, cleaning and cooking are devalued, they also require skill, practice and experience that’s worth acknowledging.

Consider the difference between “This is Cindy, she makes beautiful quilts and works at Mercy Medical” and “This is Cindy, she’s a cardiothoracic surgeon at Mercy Medical, and she also makes really stunning modern quilts.”

And if you’re sitting here thinking “Ugh, yet another thing I have to worry about” or “Maybe I should just stop talking to or about women entirely,” take a deep breath! By thinking about the way we talk to and about each other, we often discover interesting things about ourselves — and behaving with more care towards the people around us makes the world a better place.

It also allows you to have a little fun and play with language to get other people thinking about how their words can uplift women or subtly tear them down.

Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons

60 comments

Emily J
Emily J6 days ago

I agree all sexism is bad, whether it's directed at men or women it's harmful to everyone.

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Richard B
Richard B7 days ago

Thank you

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Eugene J
Gene J8 days ago

Sexism, benevolent or not, is a cancer in our society. It needs be ended in every form it takes. We get better at everything when our whole nation contributes, that has never been more evident than right now.

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hill10 days ago

tyfs

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Shae Lee
Shae L12 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Emily J
Emily J13 days ago

Yeah like the people who say they are for gender equality, then go on to say in the next sentence we "don't need feminism anymore" and they "know what's best for women" arrrgh!

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Julie W
Julie W15 days ago

Can't agree with this statement: "crimes or acts of cruelty are sometimes framed as “worse” when they impact disabled women, a patronizing trend that makes it seem like disabled women are lesser and in need of protection."
They may not be 'lesser', but they are certainly more vulnerable, men as well as women.

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Janis K
Janis K15 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Amparo Fabiana C
Amparo Fabiana C17 days ago

We want respect. Don't treat like cutesy girls, but for our credentials.

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Jetana A
Jetana A17 days ago

Insidiously ingrained in southern & southwestern culture.

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