Benevolent Sexism Definition
Benevolent sexism is a form of paternalistic prejudice (treating a lower status group as a father might treat a child) directed toward women. Prejudice is often thought of as a dislike or antipathy toward a group. Benevolent sexism, however, is an affectionate but patronizing attitude that treats women as needing men’s help, protection, and provision (i.e., as being more like children than adults). Benevolently sexist attitudes suggest that women are purer and nicer than men, but also mentally weaker and less capable. Behaviors that illustrate benevolent sexism include overhelping women (implying they cannot do something themselves), using diminutive names (e.g., “sweetie”) toward female strangers, or “talking down” to women (e.g., implying they cannot understand something technical).
Although benevolent sexism might seem trivial, patronizing behaviors can be damaging. For instance, people who see a woman repeatedly being treated chivalrously by a man (opening doors, pulling out chairs) view her as less independent. On the job, when women are given patronizing praise instead of promotions or important assignments, they become angry and their performance suffers. Patronizing praise that communicates low expectations (e.g., ‘You figured out how to tie your shoes—good for you!”) is irritating and harmful. Because benevolent sexism is often more subtle, however, many women are induced to accept its promise of men’s affection, protection, and help, without fully realizing that this can diminish their own independence and opportunities.
Benevolent Sexism Measurement
Benevolent sexism is typically measured by assessing people’s beliefs using the benevolent sexism scale, which is part of Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory also includes a hostile sexism scale that measures hostility or antipathy toward types of women whom sexists view as seeking power or control over men (e.g., feminists or women who use sexuality to “control” men). Considerable research (both in the United States and in other nations) confirms that benevolent and hostile sexism are distinct forms of sexist belief (though their positive correlation indicates that sexists tend simultaneously to endorse both the hostile and benevolent varieties). Benevolent sexism is related to subjectively favorable, and hostile sexism to subjectively unfavorable, stereotypes of women, but both are associated with traditional views about gender roles (e.g., that a woman’s place is in the home).
Paternalistic prejudices, such as benevolent sexism, develop when intergroup inequality is combined with interdependence between the groups. Although men have more power (in most societies) than women, the two sexes are intimately interdependent. Men need women to reproduce. Heterosexual men rely on women as romantic partners and, in traditional relationships, to raise their children and keep their houses. This inter-dependence means that even if men are more powerful than women, it is in men’s interest to gain women’s cooperation, rather than to elicit their resentment. Whereas some intergroup relations are purely hostile, intimate interdependence between the sexes means that hostility must be tempered with benevolence; it is unlikely, for example, that men will ever commit genocide against women.
Yet benevolent sexism placates women while still maintaining men’s power by encouraging women to remain in traditional roles. This is why it is a form of sexism—because it promotes continued inequality (even if most people who endorse benevolent sexism are not fully aware of how it functions). A key point is that benevolent sexism is directed only at women who stay within traditional gender roles (as wives, mothers, and helpers) that do not challenge (but rather reinforce) men’s power and that serve men’s needs.
Benevolent sexism may be sweet, but it is also contingent—women who fail to fulfill its expectations (e.g., by challenging male power) instead evoke hostile sexism (dislike or antipathy).
The ambivalent sexism inventory has been administered in dozens of nations. Cross-cultural comparisons reveal that societies where people more strongly endorse benevolently sexist beliefs have the least gender equality (e.g., fewer women in powerful positions in government and business) and exhibit the most hostile sexism. That is, benevolent sexism comes at the cost of gender inequality—women are protected and provided for only if they yield power to men—and, in such societies, women who reject this bargain are treated with hostility.
In sum, benevolent and hostile sexism are complementary tools of control, rewarding women for sticking to traditional roles and punishing those who do not. If women faced only hostile sexism, they would be likely to be resentful and rebellious. By “sweetening the pot” (promising that men will use their greater power and resources to take care of women), benevolent sexism punctures women’s resistance to inequality. In fact, women who endorse benevolently sexist beliefs are more likely to endorse other gender-traditional attitudes, including hostile sexism. Benevolent sexism, by falsely appearing to offer only benefits to women, induces many women to accept the idea that men ought to be in charge.
- Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). Ambivalent sexism. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 33, pp. 115-188). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.
- Vescio, T. K., Gervais, S. J., Snyder, M., & Hoover, A. (2005). Power and the creation of patronizing environments: The stereotype-based behaviors of the powerful and their effects on female performance in masculine domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 658-672.