The Irony of Benevolent Sexism
Fri, December 3, 2021

The Irony of Benevolent Sexism

Statistically, women are not a minority, but in terms of power and privileges, women are a minority to men / Photo by: Aleksandr Davydov via 123RF


Statistically, women are not a minority, but in terms of power and privileges, women are a minority to men. Despite qualifications, institutional barriers beset women, preventing them from advancement. Women still do not enjoy the same privileges and opportunities as men today. This unequal treatment of women is sexism, discrimination based on sex.

Peter Glick and Susan Fiske in 1996 developed a framework on sexism, divided into hostile and benevolent sexism. As the word suggests, hostile sexism is deliberate negative gender stereotyping, whereas benevolent sexism represents innocent but damaging attitudes toward gender and gender roles. It is a prejudice that appears harmless on the surface but, in reality, reinforces patriarchal social structures that place men above women. Lying on the obscure belief that women need to be protected by men, women who accept and succumb become increasingly less ambitious, indecisive, and more dependent on men.

The Dangers of Benevolence

Research shows that benevolent sexism is more effective in minimizing resistance and maximizing compliance. The study, conducted by Manuela Barreto and Naomi Ellemers, revealed that benevolent sexist views are less likely to be seen as sexist and elicit less anger. It induces women to remain in gender-traditional roles and to agree cooperatively to subordination. In instances when moral and social norms favor equality, benevolent sexism is a more effective way of maintaining the unequal social order.

The findings were corroborated by the study of Benoit Dardenne that showed women experiencing unsettling thoughts about their sense of competence from recruiter’s benevolent sexist remarks during the job-recruitment process, resulting in poor cognitive performance. In another study conducted, women seemingly accept protective career restrictions from their romantic partners. They perceived their partner’s motive as caring even though the restriction was discriminatory.

Research shows that benevolent sexism is more effective in minimizing resistance and maximizing compliance / Photo by: Aleksandr Davydov via 123RF


Benevolent Sexism in the Workplace

Benevolent sexism is often subtle but disturbing. A well-meaning man can intentionally or unintentionally demoralize a woman colleague with comments that miss the mark. 

In the workplace, it is common for women to be praised as nice but less likely praised as competent. Studies showed that in a benevolent sexist setting, women less likely receive open feedback and challenging tasks. Instead, women receive offers and unsolicited assistance that gradually rub away their confidence, undercutting their performance and chances for advancement.

The following are some red flags of benevolent sexism in the workplace:

Event planning is generally not valued by companies and oftentimes relegated to women. Aside from being stressful, this task takes a lot of effort and time that diminishes the value and productivity of the actual company job. It is frequently grounded on women's typecast role of being better organizers than leaders.

Companies often reassign high-profile clients to a male colleague after the maternity leave of a female worker to make it easy for her to ease back into her job. It may seem well-intentioned, however, according to Forbes, the reassignment of important tasks decreases the woman's opportunities for promotions. A study revealed that women’s salaries decrease by 4% for each child they have.

It is subtle sexism if a male boss focuses on the likable personality of a female colleague rather than her job performance in a performance review. A Harvard study found that women receive 1.4 times more subjective feedback and less constructive feedback than men. Moreover, women’s performances are attributed to personality traits rather than abilities and skills. In another study conducted by Stanford University, feedback on men’s performance contained actionable advice, but women’s performance reviews only hyped up women’s teamwork and collaboration skills.

Male colleagues expect women colleagues to bring them coffee and take down minutes during company meetings. This mother-manager syndrome is accepted as the norm when, in fact, women have other responsibilities at work to prioritize. 

Dealing With Subtle Benevolent Sexism

Subtle sexism appears in a myriad of ways. This can become frustrating, especially if often experienced. If these situations persist, the following are recommended:

- Choose the battles worth fighting. If a sexist remark merits addressing, then respectfully confront the person and offer feedback. If the person who made the sexist comment is someone inconsequential, just take a deep breath and move on. Whatever the case, strive to prove them wrong.

- Do not be sarcastic in addressing sexist remarks. Directly communicate with the person as if the person did not mean to offend you. Sometimes, male colleagues really do not realize their remarks are offensive. Privately discuss with the offending party how the remarks were uncomfortable. The discussion can make them aware of their biases.

Subtle sexism appears in a myriad of ways. This can become frustrating, especially if often experienced / Photo by: lightfieldstudios via 123RF


- Form a support group to share experiences and tips. This can empower other women employees.

 - If subtle sexism occurs regularly, bring up the issue to HR. Provide detailed information about the incidents to make the case stronger.

The good news is, in our society today, many men support women at work. Let us encourage them to use compliments and provide opportunities that acknowledge and bolster the competence, ability, and status of female colleagues.