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Blackburn 101: Benevolent Sexism

When we talk about sexism in the workplace or in the world at large, certain images likely come to mind — a certain kind of hostility aimed at women, or crude jokes. This type of sexism is often rooted in misogyny, or a belief that women are somehow inferior. Yet there is another type of sexism that is just as prevalent in our society — and perhaps more damaging because it can be much harder to address.

Benevolent sexism is a type of sexism that may feel favorable at first. It starts with what may seem like a compliment: stating that women should be protected, or that women are naturally more nurturing. But these “compliments” are often flipped and used against women to keep them from advancing. For example, women who are naturally more nurturing should be at home with kids — not at work or running a business. Or perhaps women who should be protected are often prevented from living full lives because they are seen as incapable of taking care of themselves. If women are viewed as more compassionate, then they are penalized if they come across otherwise — then they are bossy, aggressive and calculating.

Benevolent sexism is also a form of ownership of women. When men feel that they need to protect women from harm or violence, it is often because they feel possessive over them. This has direct links to inequality — and to gender-based violence, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.

In this way, benevolent sexism — which is also called ambivalent sexism — can be incredibly harmful to women. It is essentially taking stereotypes about women that are supposedly positive, and using them against them as a way of holding women back — and even actively harming them. The effect of benevolent sexism can be seen across the board in rates of other types of sexism. According to a report for Harvard Business School’s Gender and Work conference, in countries where the rates of benevolent sexism are higher, the rates of overt, hostile sexism are also higher.

Of course, benevolent sexism doesn’t just impact women; it can affect men as well. When men are automatically assigned negative character traits for being men — or told that they cannot express emotion because they are men — it can also be used to insult men who do have those traits. For example, men who are good at communicating, at taking care of household tasks or other qualities that are typically associated with femininity can be the victims of benevolent sexism when their “masculinity” is called into question.

Benevolent sexism also has long ties to racism. In particular, white men have justified their violence against Black men with the claim that white women need to be protected from Black men. This was the case with Dylann Roof, who reportedly stated, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” before murdering 9 Black people in a Charleston church in 2015.

Calling our benevolent sexism can be more challenging than other types of sexism because on its surface, it may seem favorable. But underneath, it is just as damaging as a sexism based on hostility because the end result is the same: women are not hired, are not promoted or not otherwise permitted to advance.

Addressing inequality in our society is just one step towards our ultimate goal of ending gender-based violence. You can join our mission by donating to support our organization, volunteering, or joining our FAME or FAB groups.

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