Originally published on Everyday Feminism.
I was recently talking to a man about a female friend of his, who had just told him about being sexually harassed at work. He was appalled.
He said, “It makes me so mad. She’s this sweet, Midwestern girl without a bad bone in her body. She just doesn’t deserve it.” I pointed out that being an assertive, mean, or worldly type would not have made her “deserve” to be harassed either, but this conversation reminded me how common benevolent sexism is — and why it’s one of the hardest forms of sexism to call out.
Benevolent sexism is often perpetuated by people of all genders who feel positively toward women who conform to traditional and stereotypical ideas about feminine behavior, and who would never think their own actions had any malicious motivations. It's discrimination couched in favorable terms and often presented in ways that express appreciation for women or comes under the guise of protecting or caring about women. As a result, discriminatory sentiments may be conveyed in seemingly complimentary ways. Taken together, these factors make this form of prejudice really hard to recognize and call out.
Yet just because benevolent sexism is so common, and the harm it causes is often unintended, it doesn’t mean that the negative impact is any less real. Studies have found, for example, that in many ways, benevolent sexism is more likely to reinforce women’s acceptance of gender inequality than is overt hostile sexism, which is easier to deride. It has also been demonstrated that exposure to benevolent sexism increases people’s justification for discrimination and makes them less inclined to participate in collective action against it.
But because of these complicated — and often contradictory — messages, benevolent sexism can be hard to identify. But one of the best ways to combat it is to recognize how it can play out.
Here are three examples of benevolent sexism and how we can challenge it when we see it occurring.
1. The idea that women are naturally more nurturing than men
A lot of people deeply believe that women possess certain characteristics that men don’t. These include being more intuitive, better at communicating, more loving and peaceful, and better at parenting. Such attributes can seem positive, but they reduce women to a stereotype many just don’t fit into. They also strip men of the ability to freely express similar qualities themselves.
As Melanie Tannenbaun explains in Scientific American, stereotypes about women being better parents harm both men who want to stay home with kids and women who don’t. She writes, “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…. How does it affect the man who wants to stay at home with his newborn baby?” And ideas like these force people into rigid gender roles, both in the realm of family and beyond.
Indeed, the authors of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy found that in professional settings, while men who take control and get things done are admired, women who do so are often labeled cold and are disliked, which holds them back from getting promotions. Ultimately, making assumptions about anyone’s character or abilities based on their gender is problematic in multiple ways!
What You Can Do:
- Let go of your belief in the innate nurturing and/or emotional nature of women.
There are still plenty of people of all genders (feminists included) who subscribe to a “woman as earth mother” view. But while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be in touch with your emotions, or feel connected to your kids or your body, think about whether you understand this as a personal choice, or if you believe that such qualities are innate in all women. If it’s the latter, consider what this implies about men and about women who don’t conform to your vision.
- If you parent as an opposite gender couple, don’t deny the father the ability to do childcare based on the belief that he will be worse at it.
And definitely don’t refer to it as “baby-sitting” when he is with the kids alone.
- In the workplace, check comments about coworkers who you think are “bitchy” or aggressive.
Would you say the same thing about an outspoken male colleague? If not, then it probably doesn’t apply to your female colleague either.