Benevolent sexism? Not so much

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock lately – or watching the soon to be canceled show “Playboy Club” - so-called ‘benevolent sexism’ means doing or saying nice things for sexist reasons. For example, holding open a door for a woman (when you don’t do it for men), or offering to install a female co-worker’s computer (again, when you wouldn’t offer the same help to a man). It’s “subjective affection as a form of prejudice,” according to researchers Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske, who first came up with the term benevolent sexism. If sexism isn’t always hostile, does that mean that the kinder, gentler version is a good thing? Or, at least, not a bad thing?

The funny part is – or, perhaps, the utterly depressing part – that this debate has been going on for, um, twenty years. Yes, twenty years ago Glick and Fiske developed the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI), which measures both Hostile Sexism and Benevolent Sexism. Since then, thousands of people in dozens of countries have taken the survey. And the results are still in: benevolent sexism sucks. It sucks like sexism. It is sexism. Because in every country where this survey was administered, hostile and benevolent sexism are in a co-dependent relationship – you can’t have one without the other. The only difference is that with hostile (or obvious) sexism, you’re punished for not behaving appropriately and with benevolent (or old-school/stealthy) sexism you’re rewarded for behaving appropriately.

Okay, so there is one more difference: Many practitioners of stealth sexism – as we prefer to think of it – truly believe they’re being polite or gentlemanly or chivalrous or helpful. But just because they mean well doesn’t mean that they’re actually doing good. Numerous studies (it’s been twenty years, folks) show the negative effects of stealth sexism. For example, when women are frequently given benevolently sexist help in the workplace, they become unsure of themselves and perform poorly.

That all said, we’d hate to live in the kind of world where it was appropriate to let a door slam in your colleague’s face just so you weren’t accused of being sexist. So here’s an idea: Why can’t we take all that benevolent sexism and channel it into being plain nice? Why can’t we hold open doors for everyone? Why can’t we offer to help out everyone with a complicated computer installation? Don’t beat up on sexism, people – kill it with universal kindness and good manners.