How benevolent sexism stealthily penalises women at work

Informing a woman that she is “more sensitive” than a man or praising her appearance may not receive as much backlash in the workplace as “more hostile” forms of sexism, a recent study has found. However, this “benevolent sexism”, cloaked in positive language, can be just as damaging to the careers and mental well-being of those targeted.

For 8 out of 10 women, encounters with sexist attitudes and decisions are all too common in the workplace, according to findings from the StOpE barometer, released in the summer of 2023 and based on input from 90,000 workers.

From discriminatory remarks to significant ramifications, 93% of women and 89% of men surveyed acknowledged the detrimental effects of everyday sexism at work.

Nevertheless, these behaviours and comments rooted in gender stereotypes, such as “benevolent sexism” – remarks that may seem positive but pigeonhole women into traditional roles – often escape censure from employers and bystanders, including colleagues.

This was uncovered by a recent study published on October 10, 2023, in the journal Sex Roles.

What is “benevolent sexism”?

“Sexism can manifest in various ways, and bystanders may not always recognise or intervene after witnessing different forms of sexism in the workplace,” begins the new study.

Indeed, research suggests that two types of everyday sexism exist within the workplace: hostile sexism – overtly degrading remarks and behaviours towards women – and benevolent sexism – more subtly expressed and coated in positive, even “protective” language.

Unfortunately, “many people believe sexism must be openly negative beliefs or actions towards women, but we know that benevolent sexism also exists and harms those who experience or witness it,” noted lead author Lindsay Y. Dhanani, speaking with the media PsyPost.

Thus, “participants perceived hostile sexism as a greater moral transgression than benevolent sexism […] due to its seemingly positive nature, benevolent sexism is less likely to be immediately recognised as a moral infringement and, consequently, does not elicit the same moral outrage,” explains PsyPost.

While few immediate reactions may be triggered, significant consequences are still observed

However, benevolent sexism “still inflicts harm and reinforces gender roles and hierarchies,” emphasises author Lindsay Y. Dhanani.

Yet, “this seemingly positive form of sexism […] is less likely to provoke the reactions typically associated with discrimination and harassment. Consequently, witnesses of benevolent sexism are less inclined to view it as a violation of moral standards,” she continues.

Because these behaviours are not always seen as demeaning: “Complimenting women for being fantastic, attentive, or possessing certain qualities constitutes sexism and perpetuates the confinement of women to specific roles. For instance, disguising remarks about appearance, attire, or physique as compliments associates an individual not with their professional abilities but with their status as a woman, objectified for seduction,” explained Marie Becker, an expert in workplace sexism prevention, upon release of the StOpE barometer results.

In conclusion, “organisations must remain vigilant against all forms of sexism, including those that do not align with conventional perceptions of what constitutes sexism,” in order to effectively combat these behaviours, underscores the lead author of the study.

This article was syndicated from Marie Claire France
Translated and adapted by Praise Vandeh, Marie Claire Nigeria Content Writer


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