Sexism, prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender, especially against women and girls.
Ambivalent or benevolent sexism refers to attitudes that view women and men in stereotypical roles, but feel “positive” or even complimentary in nature. Ambivalent or benevolent sexism usually originates in an idealization of traditional gender roles: Women are “naturally” more kind, emotional, and compassionate, while men are “naturally” more rational, less emotional, and “tougher,” mentally and physically. Translated into the workplace, ambivalent or benevolent sexism is behind the assumption that women are naturally better administrative assistants or naturally prepared to organize buying a gift for the boss. Because they’re “better” at it.
Why benevolent sexism can have long-lasting, negative impacts, but the bottom line is that even though the tone of these comments can seem benign—even complimentary—they’re indicative of an insulting, stereotypical worldview..
One of the most recognisable examples of benevolent sexism is “failing to give women challenging assignments or promotions under the assumption that it would be ‘too stressful’ or interfere with family commitments.”
Like all forms of sexism and discrimination, benevolent sexism harms people by emphasizing gender inequality. Benevolent sexism differs from what’s called “hostile” sexism as it very often seems well-intentioned or harmless.
For example, a manager exhibiting hostile sexism doesn’t promote a woman on the grounds that a women can’t do the job. By contrast, a manager demonstrating benevolent sexism doesn’t promote a woman believing that the new role may be too stressful for a mother with a young baby at home.
“Benevolent sexism characterizes women as wonderful but weak, needing men’s protection and provision.”
“It causes patronizing behavior toward women such as over helping, ‘mans plaining,’ and restricting them from stressful or ‘dangerous’ activities."
Benevolent sexism essentially applies what some might consider positive stereotypes of women—mothering, caring, delicate—to the harm of a woman’s professional development.
Benevolent sexism is not like the stereotypical, hostile sexism we usually hear about. Rather than insulting women, benevolent sexists compliment women based on stereotypes. So, what exactly are the beliefs that are contributing to all these problems?
1. "Women Have Motherly Nurturing Instincts."
For example, “manning up” can hold back team members and stop them from taking risks, while filling the “mama bear” role tends to prevent staff from taking accountability and learning from hardship. Any stereotype in the workplace or politics, Wiseman points out, can be flipped to women's disadvantage. If women tell their coworkers that women get things done while men are all talk, for example, they may be more likely to put men in public roles involving oration while women get stuck with administrative tasks.
2. "Women Are More Compassionate."
Viewing women as more compassionate and gentle and men as more aggressive can penalize women who are assertive, leading people to deem them "bossy" or "too harsh." Expectations for women to have a more soft-spoken, accommodating leadership style can lead people to criticize women who don't adopt it.
3. "Women Are Just More Beautiful."
I've heard people, even women, say it's understandable that women's bodies are used to sell things and that there are more female nudes than male nudes in art museums because women are just more aesthetically pleasing. This is a circular argument: We've been trained to think this, regardless of our gender or sexuality, because images of women are so eroticized.
This belief that women are just more pleasant to look at justifies a status quo in which women are objectified and defined by their beauty, erases desires that differ from those belonging to heterosexual men, and usually only refers to women who are conventionally attractive. When people say "women's bodies are beautiful," they're usually talking about cis, slender, curvy, able-bodied women.
We need to expand our definition of beauty, and that means including women who do not fit that mold and including people who are not women.
4. "Women Are More Intuitive."
Wherever it comes from, the claim that women are more intuitive puts us on pedestals and promotes the belief that we are less likely to rely on rational thought. We're also expected to do disproportionate amounts of emotional labor, mediating conflicts and initiating conversations evaluating our relationships with men, due to the belief that we are more emotionally intelligent and intuitive.
5. "Women Are Neater."
This is because women are supposed to be neat and clean and generally good around the household, while men are supposedly slobs and should be forgiven for it because boys will be boys. This belief system is dangerous because it leaves women stuck with chores while men use their own supposed incompetence to buck them. The same idea also applies to our appearances, with women feeling pressure to constantly look put together where men's sloppiness is not preferable but still excused.
6. "I Love Women."
When men say they love women, they're often looking for a gold star — but they're not getting one from those of us who understand benevolent sexism. If you love any group of people more than or in a different way from other groups, that affinity may very well stem from the stereotypes above. After all, implying you love women more implies that they are different, which others them and excludes those who act more "like men."
7. "Men Are Assholes."
Let's go there: Benevolent sexism hurts men too. When we say that women are more nurturing, compassionate, beautiful, and intuitive, we distance men from their capacity for gentleness, compassion, beauty, and intuition. We also contribute to stereotypes that men are bad at household tasks, communicating, and other "feminine" things. If men admire women's qualities so much, they should strive to cultivate those qualities themselves rather than exoticize women for supposedly possessing them — and men who do cultivate them shouldn't be penalized for it.
However, benevolent sexism is a subtle, soft and sugar-coated form of sexism, so much so that it is not even recognized as detrimental or sexist by many women, since its affectionate undertone camouflages its sinister intent. It sprouts out of men’s reliance on women for heterosexual intimacy, reproduction and domestic chores. On one hand, benevolent sexism tames women to cater to men’s needs, and on the other, also erodes women’s ability to use this dependence to turn the tables against men and reverse the power dynamics. For example, it glorifies women’s conformance to patriarchal construction of femininity and eulogizes women for being non-assertive, non-confrontational, non-argumentative, compromising beings, who have their decisions made for them, finances managed for them and who hold marriage and motherhood as their highest goal.
Further, it celebrates women (only) in the role of a wife, mother, and/or a caregiver and rewards them with male appreciation and acceptance in the form of chivalry (which reinforces women’s physical or intellectual weakness), paternalistic protection (which also includes controlling behaviour, that many women internalise as a part of romantic love) and material benefits. None of the aforementioned however indicates equality. Therefore, women who are conditioned to buy into benevolent sexism, feel flattered, pampered, allured and tempted (rather than offended), and come to see their sex and social status as one that garners advantage rather than discrimination. Several women are also thrusted into the benevolent brand of sexism for the fear of hostile sexism, especially, the fear of men’s and social disapproval and the resultant repercusssions, which could involve violence and abuse of varied kinds.
As long as women continue to be conditioned by benevolent sexism, the fight against gender inequality and injustice will continue to remain a Sisyphean task for the lack of solidarity and a univocal voice for emancipation from all women standing together. A parallel and stronger mobilisation by feminist forces that encourages women to see beyond what is served to them as chivalry is how we could deconstruct and diminish the effects of benevolent sexism.