Benevolent Sexism

Hostile sexism is easy to spot, and is what you probably think of when you think about sexist comments. In hostile sexism, women are portrayed as conniving and controlling, irrational, out to ruin things for men. They are sexualized objects to be used, not people. (Glick & Fiske 2011, p. 533) In my post Why Sexist Comments Are Harmful, I mentioned another contrasting type of sexism, benevolent sexism. What is benevolent sexism? The term was coined by Glick and Fiske in their 1996 paper, The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism. They explain it like this:

“We anticipate that some readers might view the neologism benevolent sexism as oxymoronic. Although benevolent does not capture the underlying dominance inherent in this form of sexism, we were unable to discover a word that successfully combines connotations of dominance and the subjectively positive origins of this form of sexism (the term paternalism does so, but as the reader will see, we view paternalistic feelings as but one component of benevolent sexism). We hope that benevolent sexism, like the term benevolent dictator, successfully conveys the combination we intend.” (p. 491)

Benevolent sexism promotes positive-sounding but still-harmful ideas about women, such as the idea that women are nicer, more nurturing, or in need of protection. A compliment on a women’s appearance from a co-worker (particularly a male co-worker) would be an example of benevolent sexism: it tells the woman that the most noticeable, important part of her self at work is how she looks, not how competent she is at her job. The idea of “the better half,” that women are special in ways that men are not, is also a kind of benevolent sexism. So is the idea that women are more pure, or emotionally intelligent, or that a man should idealize and take care of his woman. “Save the women and children first” is another example of benevolent sexism – protective paternalism, to be specific. It lumps women in with children, and says that only men can do the protecting. The idea that women need men to take care of them, to make important decisions for them (as seen in traditional marriage), is harmful to women and keeps them in a dependent position.

But wait, there’s more! Glick and Fiske found that people, both men and women, who had more benevolent sexist beliefs also had more hostile sexist beliefs. (1996, p. 507, 509) Specifically, their 1996 and 1997 research found a positive correlation of 0.4 to 0.5. (2011, p.532) Correlations can be between 1 and 0, for positive correlations, and 0 and -1, for negative. 1 would mean there is a perfect correspondence between the two sets of beliefs – where more hostile attitudes, then more benevolent attitudes in the same proportion. 0 means there is no pattern or relationship between the two things, and -1 would be an opposite but also perfect relationship – if more hostile attitudes, then fewer benevolent attitudes, in the same proportion.

To summarize, men who are sexist put women into groups, women they don’t like (who are objects of their hostile sexism), and “good” women, who they do like (objects of benevolent sexism). The contrast isn’t between benevolent and hostile sexism, but between sexist and not-sexist. What Glick & Fiske mean by “ambivalent sexism” is the literal meaning of the word ambivalent: having two valences, or values. So people who exhibit ambivalent sexism hold two sets of beliefs simultaneously, hostile and benevolent sexist views of women. These two views work together to keep women in subservience to men.

This is eloquently summed up in the following quote from Glick & Fiske 2011, p. 532 (where BS = benevolent sexism and HS = hostile sexism):

“Ambivalent sexists were not ‘‘mentally conflicted’’; rather, their subjectively positive and negative attitudes reflected complementary and mutually reinforcing ideologies. HS and BS were two sides of a sexist coin. And this double-sided coin (even if its hostile component had become more subtle) was at least as ancient as polarized stereotypes of the Madonna and Mary Magdalene.

BS was the carrot aimed at enticing women to enact traditional roles and HS was the stick used to punish them when they resisted. One emphasizes reward and the other emphasizes punishment (hence their differing valences) but both work toward a common aim: maintaining a gender-traditional status quo.

Thus, benevolently sexist attitudes had not prevented men from behaving horribly toward women, including violent assault and murder. The protection and affection BS promises (and sometimes delivers) is readily withdrawn when women fail to conform to sexist expectations.”

Since Glick and Fiske’s original research, thousands of people around the world have been tested with the scale they developed, the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, and on a cultural level (vs. an individual level), there is a correlation of .9 between hostile and benevolent sexist attitudes! That’s very close to a perfect 1 positive correlation, and those results, whether they show a high or a low amount of sexism, are reflected in how women are treated in the given nation. (2011, p. 533)

Benevolent sexism isn’t just bad because of its correlation to hostile sexism. It is harmful all on its own. Men with high BS scores “are more likely to blame a female victim of an acquaintance rape if she has violated gender role expectations for feminine ‘‘purity’’ and chastity.” (2011, p. 533) Women who experience and expect BS at work perform worse, and women who agree with benevolent sexism are less likely to object to or resist inequality or discrimination. (2011, p. 533)

These benevolent beliefs are harder to spot than hostile ones, and harder to object to because they seem complimentary, or at least better than the hostile attitudes. Objecting feels rude. Maybe it even feels that by objecting to someone expressing BS, you might cause them to become hostile. Benevolent sexism still has a negative effect on women, though. It pigeonholes women into a certain type of behavior, and trains them to feel that they can’t take care of themselves and that they must be nice. It perpetuates the dominance of men, and the dependency of women on men.

In conclusion (TL;DR): Even comments and attitudes that seem positive, if a bit sexist, are still very harmful to women. Benevolent sexism is harder to spot than hostile sexism, and because it seems well-intentioned or at least harmless, it is harder to reject. It’s difficult to recognize those attitudes in ourselves, and also more difficult to speak up when someone else projects that attitude onto you. Telling someone they’re being rude or inappropriate when they call you a bitch, or joke that you must be on your period is one thing. But when your male boss tells you look cute in that skirt, or someone tells you that you should stay home with your kids (instead of your male partner) because only you can provide the care and nurturing they need, or your male partner tells you not to worry, he doesn’t mind working extra so you can have the pretty clothes you deserve…what do you say?

What do you think about benevolent sexism and responding to it? Do you have any stories about encountering it, or can you think of more examples of it?

Read More:

Understanding Prejudice: Frequently Asked Questions: Ambivalent Sexism


Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996) The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, No. 3, 491-512.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2011) Ambivalent Sexism Revisited. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, No. 3, 530-535.


5 thoughts on “Benevolent Sexism

    1. Wow! Really inspiring. I like what she said about responding to her opponents not just with (respectful) words, but with actions. That is a powerful idea.

  1. Gotta say, the acronym BS is great as a double entendre. I think one aspect of BS is limiting our concept of sexism to things men do to women. I’ve seen numerous blogs here on wordpress where women promote BS and chide men in very insulting terms for not practicing BS. For example, blogs stating men should be more chivalrous, hold open doors, always pay for dinner, etc. – and you’re not a “real man” if you don’t.

    Most men who practice BS do so from lack of awareness or passive-aggressiveness, but as well because many women expect BS from men and some can be hostile when they don’t get it. Holding a door is polite, but this can be done without BS. Equality means whoever reaches the door first, male or female, holds the door for the person(s) behind them – even if a woman ends up holding a door for a man.

    1. Good point – sexist attitudes are certainly perpetuated and held by women as well as men. They originate from men, though. Some women buy into them, and try to enforce them, especially the “positive” characterization of women seen in BS, as special, delicate, deserving of and needing protection. A big part of what I wanted to convey in this post is how difficult it can be for women to realize that they have these ideas, too, and that they’re actually harmful. That BS is not the opposite of hostile sexism and therefor to be embraced and encouraged; that both are bad for women.

      Agree 100% about holding the door – ideally, courtesy should be extended to and enjoyed by everyone equally. Hopefully we’ll get there eventually.


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