Why is Benevolent Sexism a Problem?
We live in an age of incredible advancements. Science and technology are making so many things possible. The world is connected in ways that it has never been before. This gives us plenty of opportunities to discover our shared humanity. With frequent and open conversations, we can understand each other better. All these should lead to more inclusivity and fewer biases.
And yet, even as we are about to go into quantum computing, many areas of society continue to exist in the dark ages. One such area is gender equality. Today, women are still thought of as inferior. This is evident in the disparities in pay scales and positions of authority at work and in the community. This is the reason why many individuals and organizations continue to fight for women's rights in several fronts. Yet, there is one destructive practice that is often overlooked. It's called benevolent sexism. In this blog, we'd like to dig deeper into it and uncover why it poses such a threat to women everywhere.
What is Benevolent Sexism?
Do you notice how many popular supermodels and celebrities share anecdotes about their tomboyish youth? Now netizens have a term for them: "pick-me girls." The Urban Dictionary defines this "as girls who go out of their way to impress boys and make themselves seem that they're not like other girls." Society (and the younger generations at that!) see boyishness as attractive. This validates the idea that it's more desirable than being "feminine." It appears to be a kind of internalized misogyny, where being boyish makes them feel special (read: superior to other females).
Now let's turn the table around. Have you ever heard some male actor or sports star sharing anecdotes of when they "used to be girlish?" No, because that would be "downright humiliating." See, the difference in perceptions? This is an example of benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism is a set of interrelated values and behaviors that frame discrimination in a positive light. It is deceptive, inducing ambivalent, even favorable feelings about certain discriminatory behaviors. For instance, a male boss tells a female subordinate how pretty she looks today. If he didn't say it in a creepy tone, then the recipient of the "compliment" may take pleasure in accepting it. This is despite the fact that she submitted a particularly brilliant report, and her boss made no mention of her performance.
Rooted in traditional and paternalistic views, benevolent sexism nurtures the image of women as delicate (read: weak) and beautiful (read: beauty as their principal value). This type of sexism orients and promotes certain behaviors as positive. Benevolent sexism has become so acceptable that both male and female genders endorse and even desire it.
How Can Benevolent Sexism Be Dangerous?
There is no denying that men and women are different from each other. Each of the sexes is uniquely wired. These biological and psychological differences give us the power to contribute to society. But, people have perverted the word "different" to mean "inferior." While underestimating sexual distinctions can be dangerous (like allowing men to participate in women's sports), overestimating gender differences can be equally pernicious.
Research shows that there is plenty of overlap in personality between genders. Although the findings do not cover all cognitive and behavioral factors, they show that men and women share many similarities.
Yet benevolent sexism focuses more on the differences between men and women. It also overemphasizes the gender gap, pushing the idea that one is inferior to the other. And all this in a positive light.
On the surface, this may seem harmless. Princesses who need to be rescued by their princes charming, trophy wives, jokes about inept women drivers, negative attitudes towards assertive women at the workplace. No big deal, right? And that's precisely why benevolent sexism is pernicious. It parades itself as inconsequential. Women may sometimes even blame themselves for being overly sensitive.
We've heard of Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and the rest of their male and even women cohorts. They've all displayed hostile sexism through the rape and psychological abuse of women. But these men were conducting themselves in the same despicable manner for decades. Why did it take so long to bring them to justice? Society wouldn't have tolerated these men if they had known of their vile acts. Yet, there were glimpses of their true character early on. There were the constant jokes about women, how they'd notice and compliment pretty girls every chance they'd get, and so on. Society saw what was happening in public spaces yet deemed them harmless, choosing to look the other way. Eventually, the world condemned these men when their overtly hostile acts were exposed. Yet for the longest time, society tolerated their "non-violent" sexist behavior. Their initial "harmless" acts became the precursor of sexual violence down the road.
What of those less obvious but equally discriminatory behaviors that are more common for women in the workplace? Here are a few examples showing how dangerous benevolent sexism can get.
Women are perceived to be more organized and detail-oriented. Therefore, they are relegated to more supportive administrative roles. In contrast, their male counterparts take on the "stronger" more high-profile leadership positions. This further supports male dominance by underlining the power of men.
- More focus is on women's likability and appearance instead of their competence.
- Without realizing it, women shift their priorities to develop soft skills. They realize that these are more appreciated in women instead of hard skills (STEM, analysis, management skills). This limits the opportunities available to them and reinforces their subservient positions.
- "Harmless" jokes about women being weepy and emotional are too common. These carry the notion that women are weaker and, thus, less competent than men.
It appears that benevolent and hostile sexism mutually reinforce each other. A report for the Harvard Business School's Gender and Work conference revealed that countries with a higher level of benevolent sexism have more blatant, hostile sexism. At the same time, places with more benevolent sexist beliefs have fewer women leaders in government and business. Also, women who tended to accept benevolent sexism were more hostile towards those who didn't conform to traditional roles.
Benevolent sexism helps to perpetuate the inferior status of women. This results in under-representation in higher-level positions. Also, on average, women have lower incomes than men. In fact, the presence of benevolent sexism correlates to gender inequality, regardless of the effects of hostile sexism. In countries that tend to support benevolent sexism, men measured higher in the quality-of-life index. They lived longer and were better educated. They were also more financially stable. Additionally, they participated more in political and economic activities.
Fighting Benevolent Sexism
Benevolent sexism is a deeply rooted, multi-headed monster that wields influence in many areas of our lives. So, considerable effort and cooperation from the different sectors of society are necessary to overpower it.
- Educational systems should incorporate gender equality courses that seek to expose sexism in all its forms.
- Researchers should persist in constantly monitoring the effects of benevolent sexism on women's discrimination.
- Governments and other societal institutions should create more opportunities for women to take on leadership roles.
- Society should redefine its concepts of beauty, making it more inclusive and less objectifying.
- More gender-sensitive conversations need to take place at home and in the workplace.
- Lastly, support should increase for female-empowering businesses that allow women to achieve their fullest potential, such as Ruby Love.