Study: Being Nice to Women Is a Sign of Sexism

Researchers warn about the danger of benevolent-seeming wolves in sheeps' clothing.

If you’re a man who smiles at women and makes an effort to be kind to them, you’re probably an “insidious” and “treacherous” sexist, according to a study conducted by researchers from Northeastern University in Boston.


After observing 27 people playing Trivial Pursuit, the researchers determined that these kind of behaviors — previously known as “chivalry” — were actually signs of what’s called “benevolent sexism.”

In other words: Men who think that women deserve to be treated well often also think that women should be treated particularly well because they’re women. This, they explain, perpetuates gender inequality. Offering your jacket to a shivering women isn’t helping her — it’s hurting her by perpetuating the patriarchal idea that a woman is more likely to be cold than you are just because she’s a woman. 

Other warning signs of “benevolent sexism” include being friendly and chatty to women — which head researcher Jin Goh said is in some ways worse than being mean and/or straight up ignoring them:

“Sexism can appear very friendly and very welcoming, so in the paper we said that sexism can act like a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Goh said, according to an article in the Washington Post. “We add that sexism can consciously or unconsciously cloak itself in friendliness, so in a way it’s more insidious and treacherous than hostile sexism.”

If you still don’t believe that “nice guys” are just sexist pigs in sheep’s clothing, check out some of their responses to questions on a test distributed by the researchers. They actually said things like “Women should be rescued from a sinking ship before men” and “A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.” Whoa!

See, here’s the thing — I totally do want to be rescued from a sinking ship first, and I’d immediately break up with anyone who didn’t set me on a pedestal. What’s so wrong with that?

Well, according to another one of the researchers, what’s wrong is that I actually don’t want those things for myself. I’m just too mesmerized by the tricks of benevolent sexists to realize that the chivalrous treatment I think I enjoy is actually oppressing me:

“These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing and harmless,” researcher and professor Judith Hall said, according to an article in the Independent.

Well, Hall — you’ve got me there. Not having to drown to death on the Titanic does sound “appealing” to me. As does being asked if I want a coat when I’m shivering, especially considering the fact that it is literally scientifically true that women are more likely to feel colder than men. These are nice things; I appreciate them, and what’s really “hurting” me are articles like this that make men too reluctant to do them. (For example: I do wish a man would have helped me with my giant suitcase before it knocked me over as I was trying to drag it down the stairs by myself at a Duane Reade.)

I do agree that our society needs to view women as human beings who are just as valuable as men, and that we are in many ways not there yet — but I don’t see how lambasting both mean and nice behavior as “sexist” is going to solve anything. To suggest that I should be critical of men who listen to me when I talk is so completely backwards that it’s actually idiotic. I do appreciate these polite (and often clearly practical) “gestures of good faith” — and it’s not very feminist to tell me how I should want to be treated.

— Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.     

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