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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Women Are Kind and Men Are Strong: How Benevolent Sexism Hurts Us All

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A few months ago, I wrote a column about a situation I’ve experienced and witnessed more than I’d care for: being the only woman participating in a meeting or project—and thus being expected to become the team’s default administrative assistant. This piece struck a chord with readers of both genders, and many shared experiences that, although not directly related to administrative tasks, fell into the category of ambivalent or benevolent sexism.

Even if you’re not familiar with these terms, you’ve most likely witnessed them firsthand. Ambivalent or benevolent sexism refers to attitudes that view women and men in stereotypical roles, but feel “positive” or even complimentary in nature. Ambivalent or benevolent sexism usually originates in an idealization of traditional gender roles: Women are “naturally” more kind, emotional, and compassionate, while men are “naturally” more rational, less emotional, and “tougher,” mentally and physically. Translated into the workplace, ambivalent or benevolent sexism is behind the assumption that women are naturally better administrative assistants or naturally prepared to organize buying a gift for the boss. Because they’re “better” at it.

Melanie Tannenbaum with Scientific American provides a great overview of why benevolent sexism can have long-lasting, negative impacts, but the bottom line is that even though the tone of these comments can seem benign—even complimentary—they’re indicative of an insulting, stereotypical worldview.

For example, a few years ago, I was at our office’s holiday party. A male co-worker, let’s call him John, baked and brought a pecan pie. Our director tasted it, then cheerfully walked around the rest of the party exclaiming, “You have to try John’s pie. It’s so good. And he made it himself! His wife didn’t even help!”

This is a particularly good example of benevolent sexism because it’s efficient at insulting both men and women. Sure, the director was complimenting John’s cooking, but that doesn’t mean that the comment isn’t sexist. Moreover,the problem isn’t just that the director has an archaic view of which sex handles the cooking. What was more alarming, to me, was that this comment—combined with a variety of others spewed from this director’s mouth—revealed an underlying assumption about what women and men are capable of and good at. And that assumption would play a part of the director’s business decisions, from performance reviews to task delegation.

As I said in “Taking Notes Isn’t Women’s Work,” I hesitate to write a how-to about responding to benevolent sexism because doing so implies that righting the wrongs of these comments is the responsibility of the people hurt by them. But, that being said, I do think it’s our (and by “our” I mean that of professional people who hear, overhear, and can identify benevolent sexism) responsibility to call these comments out for what they are and force the speaker to really think about the (potentially subconscious) stereotypes underlying his or her words.

So, again, acknowledging that these strategies are short-term fixes to a long-term cultural problem, I’ve collected a few responses that will help you tactfully handle these situations.

And, for the sole sake of column length, let’s abbreviate benevolent sexism to “BS.”

Scenario 1: A BS Comment is Directed at You

When one of these comments is leveled at you, the goal of your response should be three-fold: 1) Help the speaker realize the implications of his or her words, 2) demonstrate that you’re the type of mature professional who demands to be measured by achievements, not gender or appearance, and 3) wrap things up quickly, because you have work to do.

For example, more times than I can count, an older male colleague has “apologized” to me or to “the ladies in the room” after using profanity. Maybe, in his mind, he’s being polite, repeating a ritual that he’s seen performed for generations. But to me, and to many women, he’s classifying us as a different class, a “delicate” group people of who aren’t cut out to hear some types of language.

I’ve had the chance to test out a few different responses to this one, and I’ve found that saying, “No need to apologize. There aren’t any children in the room,” seems to work best, because it calls out the condescending undertones of the remark without extending the conversation further.

Men have to deal with this type of situation, too. When “Taking Notes Isn’t Women’s Work” was initially published, a reader commented that as a large, athletic guy, he was once asked to “deal with” a homeless person who had wandered into the building and was camping out in the restrooms. Though I don’t know how the reader responded, I would have suggested offering to call someone “more equipped” to handle the situation—like security or the police or a mental health professional, therefore calling attention to the fact that having a Y chromosome and a pair of biceps doesn’t prepare (or require) someone to deal with a potentially dangerous situation.

Scenario 2: You Witness a BS Comment Aimed at an Absent Party

A few years ago, I was in a Monday morning status meeting when a company executive expressed that we should reassign one of my female colleagues from phone-based customer service role to a direct sales position because she was so pretty and attractive, and clients would really respond to her.

The difficult part about these types of BS comments is that they come across as complimentary. He was, after all, proposing that she be promoted. When we hear remarks like these, which judge women (or men) based on traits that have historically been prized as the feminine or masculine ideal, it’s tempting to just brush it off and move on. And, admittedly, in this particular situation, I did.

But I regret ignoring it, because it further validated the executive’s assumption that the women who worked for him were mostly valuable for their appearances and bodies, not for their skills or the quality of their work. And it allowed him to conclude that everyone sitting in the room agreed with him.

What I should have done, and what I would suggest doing in this situation, is point out all the reasons she was actually qualified for the promotion—like her problem solving skills or success in growing accounts once they’ve been closed. And, hopefully, once I had taken this first step, other people at the table would have chimed in with similar sentiments.

Scenario 3: You Realize You’ve Just Said (or Thought About) Something That’s BS

To be honest, this happens to the best of us. We’ve grown up in a society teeming with outright sexism (what researchers call “hostile sexism”), and we’ve internalized its messages. As a result, even women and men who speak out against sexism can find themselves participating in benevolent or ambivalent sexism.

When this happens to you, use it as an opportunity to analyze your own internal thought processes, consider how cultural stereotypes continue to inform your thinking, and think about how those thoughts might be hindering you professionally and personally.

Let me share my own shameful example. During graduate school, I worked part-time at a women’s clothing store for extra cash. On a busy day during the holidays, a customer asked me to quickly ring up her purchase, explaining to me that she was in a rush because she really needed to get back to work at the university hospital. I responded, “Oh, I’m sure you are so slammed during this time of year. Nurses are saints.”

“Actually, I’m a doctor,” she responded.

I stood in stunned, guilty silence. There I was, a graduate student who was writing a thesis about how sex education informs our conceptions of gender identity, who read feminist theory for fun, who had just marched around the capitol for an equal rights demonstration, and I had assumed that if a woman worked at a hospital, she was a nurse.

Moments like these prove that we can’t just ignore ambivalent or hostile sexism and hope they simply fade away over time. We have to actively un-learn them because they’ve permeated our culture so deeply. These comments aren’t “slip-ups;” they’re evidence of underlying ideas about gender, and it’s those origins that we need to access and uproot.

When I talk about ambivalent or benevolent sexism to friends and family, I’m often told that I’m overreacting. I hear a lot of “That’s not really sexist,” and “Well, let’s just live in a world where no one can say anything nice to women ever!”

But research shows that ambivalent sexism has lasting, harmful effects. First, the presence and acceptance of ambivalent sexism usually coincides with the acceptance of hostile sexism, according to Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, the researchers who really started breaking ground on ambivalent sexism in the mid-1990s. They found that in countries where the men were likely to condone benevolent sexism, men had longer life expectancies, were more educated, had higher literacy rates, made more money, and were more politically active than women.

Melanie Tannenbaum summarizes the research of a more recent study by Julia Becker and Stephen Wright:

In a series of experiments, women were exposed to statements that either illustrated hostile sexism (e.g., ‘Women are too easily offended’) or benevolent sexism (e.g., ‘Women have a way of caring that men are not capable of in the same way’). The results are quite discouraging; when the women read statements illustrating benevolent sexism, they were less willing to engage in anti-sexist collective action, such as signing a petition, participating in a rally, or generally ‘acting against sexism.’

So, while we might feel like a hostile sexism is fading as we become a more equal society, the effects of hostile sexism are being carried on by ambivalent sexism. And one could argue, as Tannenbaum does, that ambivalent sexism is replacing hostile sexism with the same results: “Because it hides under the guise of compliments, it’s easy to use benevolent sexism to demotivate people against collective action or convince people that there is no longer a need to fight for equality.”

Don’t be fooled: Ambivalent sexism isn’t acceptable, and it can lead to a workplace culture that characterizes women as delicate flowers and men as macho meatheads. Its effects are negative for people of all gender identities. So, when you encounter benevolent sexism, don’t just shrug it off. Call it what it is, and respond accordingly.