Dismantling “Benevolent” Sexism
How you respond to sexism in the workplace matters.
“While men should continue interrupting sexism at work, they should also recognize that some responses may not be as effective as they think.”
Sexism can persist in a variety of forms including benevolent sexism and hostile sexism.
Benevolent sexism is defined by “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.”
The consequences of perpetuating both benevolent and hostile sexism for women in the workspace are identical:
- negative impacts on mental and physical health
- increased feelings of incompetence
- less career support
Common misbeliefs that promote benevolent sexism:
Misbelief #1: Men are responsible for women.
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.
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.
Example: Complimenting a woman colleague’s appearance and commenting that her husband is a lucky man.
The misbeliefs highlighted above can seem positive. Before calling out sexism, one should consider whether the response reinforces harmful beliefs about gender.
This study found that “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 Interrupt Sexism at Work
Increase your awareness.
What assumptions do you make about how people should or should not behave based on their gender? Are you making an effort to learn more about how benevolent sexism effects the workplace?
Deepen your reflection.
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 behavior. 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.
The key to having comfortable conversations surrounding sexism is to approach the conversation with curiosity with the aim of education, rather than blame.
Women can play a role in dismantling sexism as well. By practicing the methods identified previously, women can identify when benevolent sexism occurs and address the behavior effectively.