Applied Psychology OPUS

The Role of Benevolent Sexism in Gender Inequality

Jacqueline Yi

Society often fails to acknowledge that gender inequality, or the disparity in status and power between men and women, continues to exist today. Women remain significantly under-represented in higher-level, executive professions in the workforce, such as large corporations and government offices (United Nations Development Programme, 2014). Further, women have considerably lower income than men on average (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2014). Traditionally, researchers and politicians have attributed this to individual-level factors, such as the difference between what a male or female employee is willing and able to contribute to a company (Anderson, 2005). However, recent work suggests that ecological-level factors, such as systematic oppression that advantage men and disadvantage women, may provide a more valuable understanding of inequality as it exists today (Ali & Sichel, 2014; Bronfenbrenner, 1992).

According to theorists Glick and Fiske (1996, 2001), an unmistakable form of systematic oppression is hostile sexism, which is defined as any antagonism toward women who challenge male power. Theorists have argued that large corporations and government offices are spaces frequently dominated by men (Glick et al., 2000). A woman competing against a man for a high-ranking position in one of these institutions may face hostile sexism because she is viewed as a threat to the status quo of male authority. However, women are also faced with a more understated type of prejudice called benevolent sexism, in which women are stereotyped as affectionate, delicate, and sensitive (Glick et al., 2000; Frye, 1983). Those who hold benevolent sexist beliefs conceptualize women as weak individuals who need to be protected and provided for (Glick & Fiske, 1996). Although these traits and attitudes seem to encompass behaviors that favor women, research has shown that benevolent sexism is just as oppressive as hostile sexism (Glick & Fiske, 2001). The current literature review explores how benevolent sexism manifests in today’s society and, in turn, how benevolent sexism contributes to gender inequality. 

Benevolent Sexism In Intrapersonal And Interpersonal Contexts

Benevolent sexism is evident in the interpersonal relationships between men and women. By accepting the ideology of benevolent sexism, women more readily excuse acts of hostile sexism committed by the intimate men in their lives (Glick & Fiske, 2001). Research has shown that people with benevolent sexist beliefs are likely to subscribe to the notion that only “bad girls,” who have violated traditional sex role norms by behaving in a manner that invites sexual advances, get raped (Viki & Abrams, 2002). Therefore, the endorsement of benevolent sexism is associated with placing blame on female victims of rape and domestic violence, while dismissing the intentions of male perpetrators (Abrams, Viki, Masser, & Bohner, 2003; Glick, Sakalli-Ugurlu, Ferreira, & Souza, 2002).

There are also more subtle, yet equally destructive interpersonal manifestations of benevolent sexism. Because those who accept benevolent sexist ideas typically perceive women as incompetent outside of domestic roles, men will see themselves as superior to women and will treat them in a patronizing manner (Dardenne et al., 2007). Women do not interpret these condescending behaviors as acts of prejudice, but as protective and caring actions (Glick & Fiske, 2001). Men fail to recognize their benevolent sexist acts as oppressive, and often become fixated on fulfilling their traditional gender roles as the providers in their romantic relationships (Glick & Fiske, 2001; Good & Sanchez, 2009). Therefore, both genders’ actions within the framework of benevolent sexism influence each other—with men taking care of women, and women depending on men to take care of them—to the extent where motivation to rework an unjust system is diminished (Becker & Wright, 2011). This pattern is especially evident in today’s romance culture, where there are expectations for men to be chivalrous and for women to desire chivalry (Viki, Abrams, & Hutchison, 2003; Lemus, Moya, & Glick, 2010).

Women’s experiences within interpersonal interactions that are marked by benevolent sexist attitudes have implications for their internal thought processes as well (Glick & Fiske, 1996). When facing an employer’s benevolent sexist attitudes, women doubt their cognitive capabilities and perform significantly worse on executive functioning tasks (Dardenne, Dumont, & Bollier, 2007). Women who hold benevolent sexist beliefs have less ambitious educational and career goals and feel more dependent on their future husbands for financial support (Fernandez, Castro, Otero, Foltz, & Lorenzo, 2006; Rudman & Heppen, 2000). Interestingly, while benevolent sexism has been shown to be a detriment to one’s internal thought processes, research has also found that benevolent sexism is positively correlated with one’s life satisfaction (Connelly & Heesacker, 2012). Since benevolent sexist beliefs are mistaken as harmless, people accept these ideas more readily, which leads them to become complacent about gender discrimination (Barreto & Ellemers, 2005; Jost & Kay, 2005). Benevolent sexism is manifested in a multitude of ways, and it is crucial to understand how this prevalent ideology perpetuates the existing gender gap.

Benevolent Sexism And Gender Inequality

The role of stereotyping in benevolent sexism. One of the mechanisms through which benevolent sexism contributes to gender inequality is stereotyping. Within the framework of benevolent sexism, males and females are stereotyped with opposing strengths and weaknesses (Glick & Fiske, 1996; Jost & Kay, 2005; Kay & Jost, 2003). Men are given agentic stereotypes, such as being independent, ambitious, and competitive (Jost & Kay, 2005). They are viewed as highly competent, and therefore, well-suited for high-status workplace positions (Glick & Fiske, 2001). In contrast, women are assigned communal stereotypes, such as having nurturing, interdependent, and considerate characteristics, which are suitable for the duties of a proper wife and mother (Good & Sanchez, 2009). While these domestic roles are important to society, they enforce the idea that women are subservient to men, as well as incompetent and incapable without their financial support (Dardenne, Dumont, & Bollier, 2007; Glick & Fiske, 2001). However, since the content of women’s communal stereotypes can be perceived as positive, it is difficult to recognize how they justify oppressive gender roles (Jost & Kay, 2005). Men are also less likely to think of female communal stereotypes as sexist, because it is not typical for a sexist perpetrator to endorse positive stereotypes of women (Barreto & Ellemers, 2005). Therefore, both men and women unconsciously promote gender inequality by endorsing benevolent sexist ideas of complementary gender roles (Glick & Fiske, 1996; Glick & Fiske, 2001).

The system-justifying effect of benevolent sexism. Another way that benevolent sexism contributes to gender inequality is through system justification, a cognitive process that occurs in response to a system threat (i.e., an attack on an individual’s values and traditions; Stapel & Noordewier, 2011). To counteract the unpleasant or angry feelings a system threat elicits, people may attempt to fulfill their psychological need for structure and predictability by actively endorsing beliefs or stereotypes that legitimize the status quo, regardless of whether these beliefs support their personal interests (Jost & Banaji, 1994). Justifying existing systems is also a way for people to view the society in which they live as fair, even when it is not (Stapel & Noordewier, 2011).

Gender-specific system justification is an instantiation of benevolent sexism, meaning that women justify the patriarchal social systems that they belong to, even though they are essentially supporting their own disadvantages in society (Glick & Fiske, 2001; Russo, Rutto, & Mosso, 2014). Extending beyond mentally rationalizing systems, women who are part of cultures where men frequently hold benevolent sexist attitudes also tend to endorse such sexist beliefs themselves (Glick et al., 2000). By supporting existing forms of sexism, women are adaptively able to convince themselves that the society they are part of is desirable and acceptable, and ultimately reduce the emotional distress of being oppressed (Sibley, Overall, & Duckitt, 2007). Benevolent sexism, compared to hostile sexism, is easier for women to justify because it is disguised with positive stereotypes and seemingly provides personal benefits (e.g., personal protection and idealization from men; Connelly & Heesacker, 2012). Therefore, through system justification, women often perceive benevolent sexism as fair, and thus have fewer difficulties in perpetuating gender inequality through the endorsement of benevolent sexist beliefs held by themselves or others.

Conclusion

Benevolent sexism has various intrapersonal and interpersonal manifestations that have conditioned some women to physically, mentally, and emotionally rely on male partners or family members, making it extremely difficult for them to resist this oppressive ideology. While women who do not fit traditional gender stereotypes are undeniably punished with hostile sexism, women who adhere to these stereotypes, which are rooted in benevolent sexism, are rewarded with adoration (Glick & Fiske, 2001). Thus, certain women do not feel the need to challenge a complementary view of societal gender roles. In addition, through the cognitive process of system justification, women are able to legitimize benevolent sexism even though it promotes their own subjugation (Becker & Wright, 2011; Connelly & Heesacker, 2012). Through endorsing benevolent sexism, society is less likely to challenge the rampant gender inequality that exists today.

Considering benevolent sexism’s various manifestations and contributions to gender inequality, researchers and practitioners should develop psychological interventions to bring about social change. First and foremost, both men and women need to be educated about the insidious consequences of prevalent benevolent sexist attitudes. Interventions should also aim to increase men’s understanding of benevolent sexism’s oppressive nature and help them develop empathy for women who experience gender discrimination (Connelly & Heesacker, 2012). Lastly, both men and women would benefit from interventions that elucidate on the differences between benevolent sexism and politeness (e.g., opening a door for a woman because she is a woman vs. opening a door for a woman to partake in a kind, civil act; Barreto & Ellemers, 2005; Becker & Wright, 2011; Connelly & Heesacker, 2012).

It is important to note that the empirical work on benevolent sexism has several limitations. Since most of the reviewed research is correlational, one cannot establish that the endorsement of benevolent sexism causes an increase in financial dependence on male partners or the endorsement of hostile sexism. In addition, many studies measure benevolent sexist attitudes with self-report methods, which are vulnerable to social desirability bias and errors in self-observation (Tourangeau & Yan, 2007). Finally, the reviewed studies mostly utilize samples of white, heterosexual undergraduate students, and therefore their results are not generalizable to diverse populations that may have different attitudes and practices with regard to gender relations. Most of the research on benevolent sexism is also conducted in cultures with low to medium levels of gender inequality, indicating that many members of these populations tend to view sexism in general as a negative ideology. 

Future research should further examine benevolent sexism’s manifestations in today’s society and how it contributes to gender inequality—for example, exploring the role of benevolent sexism in non-heterosexual relationships. Benevolent sexism may affect women who identify as lesbians differently, because their sexual orientation is considered a significant deviation from the traditional gender roles established by society. Researchers should also aim to expand their work on benevolent sexism in a variety of cultures to better understand its impact on different social and political systems. As future studies build upon the current knowledge of benevolent sexism, society can become more informed on its negative consequences and find effective ways to challenge the rampant gender inequality that exists today.

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