I’m one of those women that other women hate. I get mad when a man opens a door for me when I clearly don’t need it (and I’m not talking about holding the door when I’m behind him—I’m talking about intentionally running ahead to open the door). Or when he stops and waits for me to exit the room first, even though he’s closer to the door.
His intentions are usually for the best. Most of the time it’s just “how he was taught” growing up. Good men hold doors for women. Men with manners let the ladies go first.
It’s all seems very harmless—sweet even, until you consider that what’s really happening is reinforcing the stereotype that women are helpless.
And that’s what’s called benevolent sexism.
The term benevolent sexism was first coined by Dr. Peter Glick, a professor at Lawrence University, and Susan T. Fiske from Princeton University, who defined it as “a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable, but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection.”
Typically when we think of sexism, we think of hostile sexism, which is described as “an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction.” Benevolent sexism feels much different from this run-of-the-mill misogyny because there is kindness at its core.
But that kindness always comes with a price.
There’s nothing wrong with opening a door for someone or stepping aside for someone else in your path – but if you’re doing it only because that person happens to be female—that’s benevolent sexism.
This is why a man can love his wife, mother and sister, have female friends, be nice to his female co-workers and still be sexist. The negative consequences of his benevolent sexism are buried in what most of us consider polite and kind behavior from men.
In our patriarchal society, it’s not hard to see how we arrived at this point. Benevolent sexism, patronizing as it can be, is still much better than the alternative—violent misogyny. When men put women on a pedestal, adore them and are nice to them, it is better than verbal and physical abuse. There’s no disagreeing with that.
But there is a price to that – whether we know it or not. According to the report for Harvard Business School’s Gender and Work research symposium, accepting benevolent sexism leads to the following:
- Reinforces the stereotype that women are weak, less competent, and dependent on men.
- Prevents young women in high school and college from seeking academic achievement or wanting to achieve financial independence, which can lead to women staying in abusive relationships.
- Keeps women from growing their careers because they are less likely to receive critical performance feedback or challenging assignments. And at the same time, are more likely to receive positive feedback.
- Justifies continued inequality. Because whether they mean to do it or not, “Benevolent sexism justifies [men’s] traditional power and privilege while characterizing their gender group as heroic protectors and family providers, rather than callous oppressors.”
- Stops women from seeing the inequality around them. According to the research, women who were merely exposed to signs of benevolent sexism (and not actively accepting of it) felt that society was fairer and it lessened their actions towards promoting women’s rights.
So what is the solution? If chivalry is so terrible, what do women like me want from men? The answer is actually pretty simple. We want men to treat us as people.
It’s not the kindness that offends. It’s the why that’s so troubling. It’s the assumption that we need it everywhere we go just because we happen to be female. We don’t need to be condescended to like helpless damsels in distress. We also don’t need to be treated like men. Simply ask us if we need or want help before offering it.
In the end, overcoming benevolent sexism requires us to address it before it starts. That begins with recognizing that teaching traditional chivalry to our young boys conflicts directly with the empowerment message that we’re simultaneously teaching to our young girls.
It’s not enough to teach girls to be powerful and independent if we don’t stop teaching boys that these independent girls need to have every door opened for them.
Recognizing and combating this benevolent sexism does not require us to throw politeness and respect out the window. We can teach kids to be helpful and supportive of one another—to help people who need it—without indoctrinating them to believe that all women need men simply because they are women.