‘Benevolent Sexism’

by Katherine Connell
Beware! It’s far more insidious than old-fashioned misogyny.

Katy Perry recently joined Taylor Swift, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and French former first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in the ranks of prominent women who declined to identify themselves as feminists when prompted by reporters. Internet responses to this trend ranged from outrage over their false consciousness to snarky derision of their stupidity to concerned introspection about the failures of feminist branding.

Another possibility that should be considered is that feminism seems largely irrelevant to an increasing number of Western women because it often appears to be at odds with their experience of reality and their desires. Bruni-Sarkozy explained, “I’m not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I’m a bourgeoise. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day.” Her remark is an indication of the gap that often exists between the concerns of feminism and the concerns of women, as was Mayer’s insistence in an interview that she remained unaware throughout high school that girls were supposed to be bad at math and science.

This gap shouldn’t be that surprising, since feminists aren’t particularly interested in empiricism. This is revealed every time the media write up academic research with findings that feminists deem objectionable. CNN a couple of months ago reported on a study in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science about the effects of ovulation on women’s voting preferences. This study was denounced as patently offensive — more offensive than, say, the Obama campaign’s telling women they should “vote like your lady parts depend on it.” In response to the backlash, CNN yanked the piece from its website, explaining that “some elements of the story did not meet the editorial standards of CNN.”

Meanwhile, last week on Slate, Amanda Marcotte began a piece decrying a study whose results she didn’t like by noting that at least it was unlike other studies whose results she didn’t like in that it avoided “theorizing that women are hard-wired to like shiny things in velvet boxes because something something caveman days.” In the study, researchers surveyed 277 students at UC Santa Cruz and found that two-thirds of them “definitely” thought that men should propose marriage to women. Only 2.8 percent of the women felt that they would “kind of” want to propose to their boyfriends, and zero men felt that they would like to receive such a proposal. Marcotte worried that “this benevolent sexism  . . . leeches women of much of their autonomy” and predicted that this pernicious state of affairs will persist until we “dramatically restructure our cultural understanding of gender and romance.”

If you’re wondering what “benevolent sexism” is and why it’s a problem, don’t worry — there are reams of social-science literature dedicated to addressing those questions. Here’s a definition from an article by Juliet Wakefield et al. in the November issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly entitled, “Thanks, but No Thanks: Women’s Avoidance of Help-Seeking in the Context of a Dependency-Related Stereotype”: “Whereas some forms of sexism are explicitly misogynistic, others are less so, and it is common to distinguish between hostile (old-fashioned) sexism and benevolent (modern) sexism.”

Rachael Robnett, the graduate student who surveyed the students at UC Santa Cruz, is also on the case. She explained to Live Science that people who hold traditional notions about romance and marriage tend also to believe that women should be cherished and protected, which sounds nice but actually is not: It’s benevolent sexism. “The flip side, which is more insidious, is that it is robbing women of some agency,” she said.

Charles Murray recently highlighted another Psychology of Women Quarterly study on benevolent sexism in a blog post he titled, “The Bad News Is That Gentlemanly Behavior Makes People Happy.” Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker found that the phenomenon was “associated with life satisfaction for both women and men” and concluded: “The results imply that although benevolent sexism perpetuates inequality at the structural level, it might offer some benefits at the personal level. Thus, our findings reinforce the dangerous nature of benevolent sexism and emphasize the need for interventions to reduce its prevalence.” Murray wondered, “When social scientists discover something that increases life satisfaction for both sexes, shouldn’t they at least consider the possibility that they have come across something that is positive? Healthy? Something that might even conceivably be grounded in the nature of Homo sapiens?” That, however, would require them to accept the idea that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it is fixed.

Because benevolent sexism is so much more insidious than old-fashioned “hostile sexism,” social scientists are forced to be creative in their attempts to measure it and analyze the negative effects they know it has on women. Consider the scenario constructed by Juliet Wakefield and her colleagues in their study of how women avoid seeking help in the context of “a dependency-related stereotype.” The university women selected for the experiment are individually allowed to “overhear” a fake phone call the female researcher supposedly receives from Joe the plumber, who is working in her apartment and has moved some of her furniture around without asking. After she hangs up, she says to some of the participants in the study, “Sorry about that — my plumber is such a typical man — he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!” To the others she says, “Sorry about that, my plumber is the most impatient person in the world.” It turns out that the young women exposed to the former statement — which sounds as if it is describing something a bit more hostile than benevolent — were subsequently less likely to ask for help with solving some anagrams, and they felt bad about themselves when they did ask for help. Conclusion: “All in all, our findings underline the point that the benevolent sexism in everyday banal interactions can be consequential for women’s emotions and behavior, and is, therefore, anything but banal.”

I tried to reflect a little on whether my banal interactions with benevolently sexist men have been undermining my emotional health and affecting my behavior without my realizing it. The other day, I asked a male co-worker for assistance with a technical issue. It’s hard to know if he was subtly robbing me of my agency, because he didn’t reply, “Oh, the network server, that’s so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you,” as did the man in a script presented to students in the 2011 study “Damned if She Does, Damned if She Doesn’t: Consequences of Accepting versus Confronting Patronizing Help for the Female Target and Male Actor.” Instead, he just sent me the relevant link and went back to work.

I don’t think most women actually want to live in a world where men don’t offer to help them lug heavy suitcases up staircases or hold doors for them or propose marriage — never mind going down with the Titanic. If feminists find these things deplorable and in need of eradication, they can hardly be surprised when women fail to identify with their cause.

— Katherine Connell is an editorial associate at National Review.