Dismantling “Benevolent” Sexism

Most of us work with a number of men who care about gender equity and creating an inclusive workplace and society. Maybe you’re one of those men. If you are, you’d probably agree that workplace sexism is an issue you’re committed to combating. On top of that, you likely understand how you and society benefit when you challenge sexism, and you’re confident in your ability to do so. When you hear a sexist remark at work, your instinct is to confront the speaker directly, questioning or rebutting the assumptions behind their remark.

But our survey of 7,210 men working in 13 countries shows that in many cases, men like the ones described above are likely to respond to sexist workplace comments with “benevolent sexism”: attitudes, practices, and actions that seem positive — such as aid, flattery, and rewards — but that undercut their goal of supporting women at work, often under the pretense of providing them with help, protection, compliments, and affection.

Both benevolent sexism and its partner, hostile sexism, reinforce established gender norms and stereotypes about women’s and men’s identities, social roles, and behavior. While hostile sexism upholds traditional gender roles by punishing women who challenge them, benevolent sexism does so through well-intentioned actions. Each type of sexism uses different tactics, but the potential consequences for working women are the same, including possible negative impacts on mental and physical health, increased feelings of incompetence, and less career support. While men should continue interrupting sexism at work, they should also recognize that some responses may not be as effective as they think.

Benevolent Sexism Reinforces Harmful Beliefs About Gender

Take the following hypothetical situation: A network system administrator position has opened up on the IT team you manage and you’re discussing whether to promote Angelina, a relatively new team member, into the role. Colin states that he doesn’t think she’ll be able to garner the respect of the team, which is mostly men, because she is “distractingly attractive,” so he is reluctant to promote her. In response to this blatantly sexist comment, Jakob says, “Colin, you should know better than to say that — Angelina’s looks have nothing to do with her many qualifications for this job. But I agree that the team’s atmosphere might be too much for her to take at this point.”

Jakob rightfully calls out Colin’s sexist comment but follows up with another statement that has the same effect — denying Angelina the promotion — but is couched in a positive glow of care and concern for her comfort. He may think he’s protecting her from a new challenge, but in fact he’s voicing benevolent sexism.

In situations like these, Jakob and others who want to call out sexism should consider whether their response reinforces one of three seemingly positive yet insidious misbeliefs about gender:

Misbelief #1: Men are responsible for women.

This stems from the twin ideas that men should protect and provide for women and that women need men’s protection and support. Giving unsolicited help to women, such as opening doors or managing the finances, may seem well intended, but paternalistic actions like these assume that women are fragile, less competent, and can’t or shouldn’t make their own life and career decisions.

Example: Not offering a woman a high-visibility project or challenging international assignment because she has young children.

Misbelief #2: Men and women are different and complementary.

This is the belief that men and women are naturally suited for distinct responsibilities and roles in society. It may be expressed through the notion that women are more caring than men and therefore should be responsible for nurturing families, communities, and teams. While this idea may seem harmless or even flattering, it is the basis for many historical limitations on women’s outside the home and channeling them into supporting roles at work.

Example: Suggesting that a woman would be better suited for a position in HR rather than sales.

Misbelief #3: Men’s personal lives depend on women.

This is the idea that men’s lives are incomplete without heterosexual romance. While it emphasizes men’s dependence on women, it also assumes women’s primary role in society is to fulfill men’s needs for affection and intimacy. In this view, women are ultimately reduced to sexual objects who lack value as independent people, even in the workplace.

Example: Complimenting a woman colleague’s appearance and commenting that her husband is a lucky man.

Benevolent Sexism Is Widespread

While many of us would disagree with these ideas when stated explicitly like this, most of us have internalized them to such an extent that it’s hard to notice when they’re embedded in comments we or others make.

Indeed, in our survey of when and how men at all levels are likely to interrupt a sexist comment in the workplace, between 29% and 74% of all men, depending on country, indicated they would likely respond with one or more of the four benevolently sexist options (out of 23 total options) — such as, for example, “I would ask my colleague to be more protective of women,” or “I would comment that women are easier to deal with than men.”

When we looked closer at this group of men, we were surprised to find that this pattern holds even for these men who consider themselves champions of women at work. We found that, depending on country, benevolently sexist responses were likely for:

  • Between 40% to 82% of men who are highly committed to combatting sexism.
  • Between 33% to 82% of men who are highly confident in their ability to combat sexism.
  • Between 39% to 84% of men who are aware of the personal and societal benefits of combatting sexism.

And for men taking the most direct approach to interrupting — as opposed to indirectly interrupting with sarcasm or humor, or staying passive by doing nothing — between 37% and 78% are also likely to use benevolent sexism in their response.

Alarmingly, we also found that in all regions, the higher a man’s position in the corporate hierarchy, the more likely he is to say he’d respond in a benevolently sexist manner. As the most senior leaders of their organizations, these men are not only undermining the women they want to support but also modeling harmful behavior to other managers.

How Men Can Actually Interrupt Sexism at Work

Clearly, many men want to be helpful, but they’re not well equipped to identify benevolent sexism in their own actions.

Here are six things men — especially senior leaders — who want to interrupt sexism can do to check their assumptions and take a more rigorous approach when they engage in these conversations:

Increase your awareness.

Learn more about benevolent sexism, how it plays out in the workplace, what its effects are, and how it’s often tied to hostile sexism. Reflect on how benevolently sexist ideas fortify rigid expectations for people of all genders. Check your assumptions about how people should or shouldn’t act and live based on their gender.

Deepen your reflection.

Visualize how you can interrupt sexist comments without falling into the benevolent sexism trap. What are the assumptions behind your words? What impact will your actions have? Are you implying that women can’t or shouldn’t do a project or task themselves?

Apply your knowledge.

If you hear others making benevolently sexist comments, challenge them. For example, if a colleague wants to “save” a woman from a complex project, help him zoom out by asking, “What are the consequences of not involving her in this project? Wouldn’t it be better to ask her directly instead of assuming she won’t want it?”

Praise others who interrupt benevolent sexism.

Acknowledge colleagues who interrupt benevolently sexist behaviour. For example, reach out to a team member to say, “What you did made a positive impact on the team.”

Model equitable behavior.

Focus on women employees’ competencies rather than on traits such as style or appearance. Give feedback related to work results and objective goals instead of characteristics stereotypically associated with women, such as warmth or likeability.

Start conversations.

Dedicate time at team meetings to discuss the different forms of sexism and how they might appear in your workplace. Ask colleagues to share their stories if they’re comfortable doing so. Approach these conversations with curiosity and humility; don’t blame yourself or others, but aim for education.

. . .

With so many men already committed to combatting sexism, there is momentum for change. Course correcting to eliminate benevolent sexism from men’s responses to sexism at work is a vital step toward making that change a reality.

Leave a Comment