Something can't actually be sexist if it's really, really nice and pleasant, right? I mean, if someone compliments me on my looks or my cooking, that's not sexist. Instead, that's awesome! Yet there are many comments that, while seemingly complimentary, somehow still feel offensive. These comments may focus on a female author’s appearance rather than the content of her writing, or mention how surprising it is that she's a woman, being that her field is mostly filled with men. Even though these remarks can sometimes feel good to hear, they can also cause a feeling of unease, particularly when one is trying to draw attention towards her work rather than her gender or appearance. And it was in search of a term to describe these seemingly-positive-yet-still-somewhat-unsettling comments and behaviours, I recently stumbled upon the word, ‘benevolent sexism’.
What Is Benevolent Sexism?
Benevolent sexism originates in an idealisation of traditional gender roles that dictate women as ‘naturally’ more kind, emotional, and compassionate. While the same gender roles decree men as ‘naturally’ more rational, less emotional, and tougher. It eulogises women for being non-assertive, non-confrontational, non-argumentative, compromising beings. It glorifies women’s conformance to patriarchal construction of femininity. Benevolent sexism celebrates women (only) in the role of a wife, mother, and/or a caregiver. It 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. Translated into the workplace, benevolent sexism is behind the assumption that women are naturally better administrative assistants or naturally prepared to organise buying a gift for the boss. Because they’re 'better' at it.
Women are conditioned to buy into benevolent sexism in two ways. Firstly, it makes them feel flattered, pampered, and tempted. Women start to see their sex and social status as one that garners advantage rather than discrimination. They do not see themselves as being discriminated against, subjugated in any way, or, as subjects of patriarchal oppression. Secondly, there is always the fear that sexism, when not accepted in its sugar-coated, benevolent form, may turn violent. Men’s disapproval may have repercussions that women are often made aware of, consequences that involve abuse of varied kinds. Either way, the cycle of benevolent sexism is vicious: it only rewards women who are ‘good girls’, where the idea of good itself is decided by patriarchy.
Why Is Benevolent Sexism Harmful?
It’s true that rather than insulting women, benevolent sexists compliment women based on stereotypes. And while it’s tempting to brush off one’s experience with benevolent sexism as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, this form of sexism is both real and insidiously dangerous. Although these traits and attitudes seem to encompass behaviours that favour women, research has shown that benevolent sexism is just as oppressive as hostile/violent sexism.
According to a report for Harvard Business School's Gender and Work conference, countries with more benevolent sexism also tend to have more cases of overt, hostile sexism. Additionally, places where people hold more benevolently sexist beliefs promote fewer women in government and business leadership roles. That’s because those holding benevolent sexist beliefs conceptualise women as weak individuals who need to be protected and provided for.
Furthermore, women who buy into benevolent sexism exhibit more hostility toward women who oppose gender roles—it pits women against women. By endorsing women as ‘excellent caregivers’ but ‘uncompetitive’ and ‘poor decision-makers’, benevolent sexism conditions women to undermine their own competence, rational abilities and potential, and, consequently, of all women (as a class). Invariably, women start to legitimise and justify their subjugation to men and regard their own subordination as natural. As such, women then find no reason to fight a system they see as just and fair. Hence, unless awareness about benevolent sexism and its harmful consequences are raised, the fight against gender inequality will remain incomplete. Benevolent sexism is after all, one of the biggest hurdles standing in way of the solidarity that’s needed for emancipation.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.