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Benevolent Sexism? GUILTY
11 August 2014
I was recently bombarded by a tirade of lectures from both my partner, and dad, about replacing my decrepit old car. The content of the lectures were similar, although undertaken at completely different times. They went something like ‘It’s really not safe darling for you to be driving such an old thing. What happens if it breaks down?’ I recall feeling simultaneously flattered by their over-protective instincts, and annoyed to the point of wanting to yell: I’LL CALL FOR ASSISTANCE…JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. Given that this was, I dunno, the twenty billionth time that someone has tried to over-protect me, I thought I’d do some research into the issue. And that’s when I discovered the concept of ‘benevolent sexism.’
The basic idea behind benevolent sexism is that women are the ‘fairer sex’ - who are deserving of affection and protection, compensate for what men lack in terms of sensitivity and social awareness, and ‘complete’ a man from a romantic and intimacy perspective (Glick & Fiske, 1996). Sounds like a pretty fair deal, doesn’t it? And therein lies the problem – because of the benevolent, complimentary nature of ideas associated with this type of sexism, it goes unfettered and unnoticed, and is hence propagated by both men, and women. Although it may feel beneficial for women to be perceived as the ‘fairer sex,’ this notion serves to reinforce patriarchy and gender stereotypes (men as ‘providers,’ and women as ‘carers and homemakers’), and has also been linked to Hostile Sexism (prejudice and overtly negative evaluations of women) (Glick & Fiske, 2001).
In my opinion, the notion of ‘chivalry’, which is supposed to mean ‘common courtesy, especially towards women’, in reality spawns a whole lot of seemingly beneficial but actually detrimental behaviour. It plays out in the expectation by some women that men should open doors for them, save them when their car is broken down on the side of the road, and buy them drinks and pay for their dinner, especially in a dating context. I’ve also seen it in the workplace, where, in a room full of men, I have been singled out for an apology for inappropriate language, and not invited to meetings in case the conversations got ‘heated’. Being ‘looked after’ may, on the surface, seem beneficial, but reinforcing gender stereotypes in this way contributes towards our inability to even scratch the surface of top leadership in business and government in this country.
Although I can see how females may unknowingly tolerate benevolent sexism, I just can’t understand why males continue to advocate it. What’s in it for them? I can’t speak from experience, but it mustn’t be easy on the wallet having to constantly fork out for dinners and drinks for women, especially if you know that the girl you’re dating could more than pay for herself? Furthermore, isn’t having to tiptoe around ‘offending’ the ladies at work just a waste of a time? Professional standards of conduct should apply to everyone regardless of gender. Finally, and probably most importantly, I think it’s time we let go of the ‘breadwinner’ notion. If we truly believe in equality, then the financial provision of resources for any type of family unit should fall equally on both parties. Girls, I know this isn’t what you want to hear but boys – why wouldn’t you want to share the burden?
I hear so, so many people say they care about equality, and see, so little action. I think the lack of inertia usually comes from the belief that one person can’t change anything but remember – the collective is nothing but the sum of the individuals. I’m fine to open that door and pay for that dinner on my own – are you?
Glick, P. & Fiske, S (1996) The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 70 (3) 491–512
Glick, P. & Fiske, S (2001) An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complimentary Justifications for Gender Inequality. American Psychologist. 56 (2) 109–118