Benevolent Sexism? Not So Much

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock lately — or watching the soon-to-canceled TV show Playboy Club — so-called benevolent sexism is doing or saying nice things for sexist reasons. Killing them with kindness, as it were. For example, holding open a door for a woman (when you don’t do it for men), or offering to install a female co-worker’s computer (again, when you wouldn’t offer the same help to a man). It’s “subjective affection as a form of prejudice,” according to researchers Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske, who first came up with the term benevolent sexism. So sexism is not always hostile — does that mean that the kinder, gentler version is a good thing? Or, at least, not a bad thing?

The funny part is — or, perhaps, the utterly depressing part — that this debate has been going on for, um, twenty years. Yes, twenty years ago Glick and Fiske developed the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI), which measures both Hostile Sexism and Benevolent Sexism. Since then, thousands of people in dozens of countries have taken the survey. And the results are still in: benevolent sexism sucks. It sucks like sexism. It is sexism. Because in every country where this survey was administered, hostile and benevolent sexism are in a co-dependent relationship. You can’t have one without the other. The only difference is, with hostile (or obvious) sexism you are punished for not behaving appropriately and with benevolent (or old-school or stealth) sexism you are rewarded for behaving appropriately.

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  1. Thank you, I wish I’d known the name for this sooner. I have a co-worker who refuses to EVER let me hold a door open for him. He stands there until I let him hold for me to walk through, then walks in behind me. Even when I get mad he still keeps doing it because to him it’s the right thing to do, and for me it took awhile to figure out why I was getting mad. It’s a constant reminder that I’m different from him, and it makes me feel like he thinks I need taken care of and I can’t fend for myself. No problems working together though, just the door thing.

  2. I won’t hate you for that, Johnny. I don’t understand why we have to treat people “like men” or “like women.” Why can’t we just treat each other like…well, people? I’d rather it be assumed that I’m capable of taking care of myself than I’m not, just like I think it should be fair for men to be able to ask for help without being criticized. It’s all a part of the same system. Are there women who want this system to continue? Sure. I, however, am not one of them. So please, don’t make assumptions about me, and I won’t make assumption about you, mkay?

  3. Love this! It’s something I’ve been trying to explain to proponents of chivalry for years. Also, there are many studies linking practitioners of benevolent sexism to domestic abuse and just plain misogyny. Seems that many (though certainly not all) men who think women are weaker and need help are also think that women are…well, weaker and just not worth that much.

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