Susan Madsen: Understanding ‘benevolent sexism’ can help us be better Utahns

Susan R. Madsen

I used to avoid using the word “sexism” because it made people uncomfortable, including me, a women’s leadership scholar. But as I began digging deeper into the research, my perspective changed.

Now I use the word often because I realized that most people don’t understand the term and how it plays out in families, communities and workplaces — particularly the more subtle form, called “benevolent sexism.” Now that I understand it, I see it all around me. Frankly, sometimes I do it, too!

Sexism means “prejudice or discrimination based on sex” and “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” It can take many forms, generally words or action from men to women, but also the reverse, and even women toward women and men toward men. According to researchers, there are two primary types of sexism: hostile and benevolent.

Hostile sexism is usually easy to spot. According to researchers, it includes more blatant prejudiced attitudes and includes obvious negative stereotypes, assessments or evaluations about a gender. This can include statements and actions that generalize women as inferior to men, not competent, unintelligent, too emotional, and manipulative.

Some experts lump sexual harassment in this category as well. Examples include: deciding on a hire, promotion, or pay increase based on gender; calling on only male employees to make comments in meetings; telling or laughing at sexist jokes; or regularly asking women (who are in the same positions as men in a meeting) to be the ones to get drinks or take notes.

Benevolent sexism is trickier. This more subtle form of sexism often comes from a good place and includes subjectively positive attitudes of gender that can actually be damaging to individuals (particularly women) and to gender equality more generally. Most of the time the language or actions are subtle, unconscious, and habitual.

With this type of sexism, there is an underlying assumption that women are inferior in some way, should be limited to certain roles and tasks, and that they need assistance or protection. Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate men opening doors for me and a male colleague walking me out to my car in a poorly lighted parking lot after an evening meeting or event. I’m not talking about courtesies.

Here are some examples. First, failing to give women specific assignments — like in a workplace, community board, or church assignment — because it might be “too stressful” or interfere with her family commitments. Second, people often comment on women’s appearance, even well-intentioned, but can undermine an individual’s feelings of being taken seriously. Another is when people do acknowledge women, but only when they fit the norms (e.g., nurturing, compassionate, intuitive, empathetic), even when they have other wonderful qualities that are more often valued in some settings (e.g., results-oriented, strategic, assertive, professional).

Even though this type of sexism can have a positive tone or attitude, it can nonetheless undermine women (and can undermine men, too, in different ways). If you aren’t sure if something is benevolent sexism or not, ask yourself this: “Are my motives to promote women or to protect them?”

Interestingly, societies that have the lowest levels of gender equality and female empowerment have the highest levels of both hostile and benevolent sexism. Sadly, Utah continues to be ranked one of the lowest in the nation for gender equality and two years ago was ranked as the second-most sexist state in the country, with women’s internalized sexism also coming into play.

The great thing is that when we are open to increase our awareness, we can immediately start making a positive difference in our own efforts and as allies to others. I encourage you to join me on this learning journey to make our Utah a better place for everyone.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.