In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fisk described two different expressions of sexism: hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is overt antagonism towards women that is prejudiced and easily recognized. However, benevolent sexism is described as, “a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.”3 Benevolent sexism says that women are affectionate, sensitive, and more compassionate than men. It tells women that we are better suited to be parents, so it is our obligation to prioritize child-rearing over our careers. Instead of telling unattractive women that they have no value, it tells us that women must wear make-up to be taken seriously. Instead of telling women that they need a man to survive, it tells women that they need a spouse and children to be truly fulfilled. Benevolent sexism tells men to protect women and provide for them because they’re more vulnerable. These messages seem benign at their surface, and are intended to be positive beliefs. However, benevolent sexism is more insidious than hostile sexism, making it as dangerous to gender equality as overtly discriminatory beliefs.
An EM-relevant example of benevolent sexism occurred during a controversial letter to the editor printed in Emergency Medicine News in August, 2017. In it, women were advised that their, “natural mothering tendencies don’t have to disappear” during their career, but that women should, “Be a mom, be a wife, be a doctor, but each in its season.” The author concluded that trying to balance everything is, “…in very few women’s nature, and there’s almost always pain.”6 While intended to be supportive, these statements promote stereotypical roles for women as mothers and wives, arguing that the addition of being a physician is too burdensome. Historically, men have inhabited all three roles at once with little controversy, not to mention that the role of becoming a wife or a mother are not obligatory for all women.
Besides its role in individual beliefs, societies that display a high level of benevolent sexism concurrently demonstrate high levels of hostile sexism.5 Glick describes the interplay between these two concepts by saying, “Hostile sexism punishes women when they challenge male dominance, while benevolent sexism, rewards women for conforming to stereotypes and roles that serve men’s needs. Together, these ideologies act as the carrot and the stick that motivate women to stay ‘in their place.’ … Although benevolent sexism promises women a pedestal, not all women qualify for this elevated place. Only those who embrace acceptable roles or embody feminine stereotypes make the grade, and only for so long as they continue to do so.”2
High levels of benevolent sexism correlates to more men in high-powered jobs in government/industry, higher income, more education, higher literacy rates, and longer lives when compared to women, independent of hostile sexism.3,7 As disheartening as these associations are, benevolent sexism has a subtle effect on women that has troubling implications. Women who are exposed to hostile sexism become galvanized to fight for gender equality, and they are more likely to engage in collective action. However, women who are exposed to benevolent sexism are less likely to fight for gender equality and are more likely to support beliefs that promote gender inequality, limiting their ability to advocate for change even when it benefits them.1
While seemingly benign, benevolent sexism exists as a significant barrier to gender equality. It relies on the belief that the differences between men and women are discrete, and it is a message often delivered with positive intent. However, promoting gender equality means that one believes that human characteristics are genderless and broad. It is a belief that gender should not define one’s ability, and instead, our individual attributes should stand as a testament to our strengths, weaknesses, and complexity.
- Becker JC, Wright SC. Yet another dark side of chivalry: Benevolent sexism undermines and hostile sexism motivates collective action for social change. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Jul;101(1):62-77.
- Glick P. “Backlash and the Double Bind.” Gender & Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom. Harvard Business School Symposium.President & Fellows of Harvard College. 2013. Accessed 17 Dec 2017.
- Glick P, et al. Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000 Nov;79(5):763-75.
- Glick P, Fiske ST. The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism. J Pers Soc Psychol.1996;70(3):491-512.
- Glick P, Fiske ST. An ambivalent alliance. Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality. Am Psychol. 2001 Feb;56(2):109-18.
- Martin G. Letter to the Editor: Parenthood and Medicine, Each in Its Season. Emergency Medicine News. 2017 Aug;39(8): 21.
- Tannenbaum M. “The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly…” Psy Society. Scientific American. Accessed 17 Dec 2017.