Breaking Down "Benevolent" Sexism

The true devil is in the details.

2024 is almost here. Therefore, one would assume that there would not be a forty percent pay gap between men and women, that women would be more likely to climb up to career ladder, and that they would not be scrutinized for their looks just to attain unrealistic beauty standards or make headlines because of their wrinkles or cellulitis. But NO. Sexism is not going anywhere anytime soon. All that women desire is gender equality, a more inclusive workplace and community, and an end to sexualization and stereotyping. Since when does asking for the bare minimum equate to creating a utopia? Apparently, when it comes to women, it is just harder than we think as in 2023 we are still arguing the same old stuff over and over.

Most people associate sexism with male-oriented aggressiveness towards women. However, sexist beliefs about oneself and one another can exist in both sexes. Although sexism has typically affected women, it also negatively affects men. Rigid gender stereotypes put both sexes at risk by promoting prejudice and limiting opportunities. Nevertheless, sexism against women and "benevolent sexism" will be this article's primary focus. 

So what is 'Benevolent Sexism'?

In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske published an article on the concept of ambivalent sexism, stating that, contrary to popular opinion, there are two types of sexist attitudes: hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. They might appear dissimilar, yet both types eventually complement one another by promoting traditional gender norms and upholding the patriarchal system that regards women as the second sex. The belief that women are inferior is shared by both types of sexism. In the words of Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree in Gender: Ideas, Interactions, and Institutions, sexism is a two-way street:

Compared to such hostile sexism, it’s easy to interpret benevolent sexism as expressing a female-friendly gender order, but that’s not how it works. they are two sides of the same coin: Benevolent sexism rewards women’s subservience with men’s approval, protection, and support (sometimes called “chivalry”), but if women fall or jump from their pedestal, hostile sexism takes its place. Protection and support are revoked in favor of verbal or physical assault. Benevolent sexism is Plan A; hostile sexism is Plan B. Reflecting this, societies usually either have low rates of hostile and benevolent sexism or high rates; the two types of sexism rise and fall together (Wade & Ferree, 2019, p. 184).

Most people associate "sexism" with hostile sexism, which is explicitly unpleasant, aggressive, and frequently involves enmity, bias, or prejudice against women. Beliefs about women being extremely sensitive, dumb, inept, and sexually manipulative are all examples of hostile sexism. Even though hostile sexism is revolting and unsettling at least it is there. It is difficult to comprehend that one can be both sexist and polite, therefore benevolent sexism is really the devil in disguise. Most people will see it right away, but it is far more difficult to detect when it is covered up by kindness and seems to reflect positive perceptions of women. The authors define benevolent sexism as:

 We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491).

Positive preconceptions are the source of some of the strongest backhanded compliments. Women are always portrayed as helpless damsels in distress who are waiting for their prince charming, devoted mothers, and "gentle flowers" who require constant care. Since modern-day chivalry mentality bases itself upon the belief that women are weaker than men, such positive stereotypes may sound kind or helpful, such as holding doors open or helping women carry heavy objects, but they ultimately reduce women to a narrow range of characteristics and ideals. You might ask why is it bad to want to be polite. Sometimes it's only a compliment and totally polite to tell a woman how pretty she looks. On the other hand, it is different when you compliment a woman on how she looks instead of her work- ''I take your job lightly'' that's precisely what it's saying. As Glick and Fiske address the subject in their paper:

We do not consider benevolent sexism a good thing, for despite the positive feelings it may indicate for the perceiver, its underpinnings lie in traditional stereotyping and masculine dominance (e.g., the man as the provider and the woman as his dependent), and its consequences are often damaging. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient. For example, a man’s comment to a female coworker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491-492).

In addition, benevolent sexism perpetuates the myth that men and women are inherently more qualified for different responsibilities in society. It could be presented by the idea that since women are more nurturing than men, they should be in charge of raising families. This notion, which stems from its seemingly positive assessment, might come off as innocent or charming, but it is actually the foundation of many constraints on women's opportunities outside the house and in pushing them into assisting positions at work, which is likely to undermine a woman's self-esteem and productivity. 

When you get down to it, benevolence sexism is basically just gaslighting. Since it anticipates that the comments will be taken positively, they can easily make women more submissive. This might not seem to be an issue for certain women; yet it takes full advantage of women's sensitivity and works extremely well for silencing women since when they are confronted with benevolently sexist statements rather than harsh ones, they are unlikely to speak out and take action. If you detect the backhanded praise and choose the address it; congratulations, you are now a 'b*tch'.


Wade, Lisa, and Myra Marx Ferree. Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. 3rd ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2019.

‌Glick, P., & Fiske, S. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (3), 491-512 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.70.3.491