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The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly…

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Something can’t actually be sexist if it’s really, really nice, right?

I mean, if someone compliments me on my looks or my cooking, that’s not sexist. That’s awesome! I should be thrilled that I’m being noticed for something positive!

Yet there are many comments that, while seemingly complimentary, somehow still feel wrong. These comments may focus on an author’s appearance rather than the content of her writing, or mention how surprising it is that she’s a woman, being that her field is mostly filled with men. Even though these remarks can sometimes feel good to hear – and no one is denying that this type of comment can feel good, especially in the right context – they can also cause a feeling of unease, particularly when one is in the position of trying to draw attention towards her work rather than personal qualities like her gender or appearance.

In social psychology, these seemingly-positive-yet-still-somewhat-unsettling comments and behaviors have a name: Benevolent Sexism. Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, benevolent sexism is both real and insidiously dangerous.

What Is Benevolent Sexism?

In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske wrote a paper on the concept of ambivalent sexism, noting that despite common beliefs, there are actually two different kinds of sexist attitudes and behavior. Hostile sexism is what most people think of when they picture “sexism” – angry, explicitly negative attitudes towards women. However, the authors note, there is also something called benevolent sexism:

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).

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).

Yes, there’s actually an official name for all of those comments and stereotypes that can somehow feel both nice and wrong at the same time, like the belief that women are “delicate flowers” who need to be protected by men, or the notion that women have the special gift of being “more kind and caring” than their male counterparts. It might sound like a compliment, but it still counts as sexism.

For a very recent example of how benevolent sexism might play out in our everyday lives, take a look at this satirical piece, which jokingly re-writes Albert Einstein’s obituary.

To quote:

He made sure he shopped for groceries every night on the way home from work, took the garbage out, and hand washed the antimacassars. But to his step daughters he was just Dad. ”He was always there for us,” said his step daughter and first cousin once removed Margo.

Albert Einstein, who died on Tuesday, had another life at work, where he sometimes slipped away to peck at projects like showing that atoms really exist. His discovery of  something called the photoelectric effect won him a coveted Nobel Prize.

Looks weird, right? Kind of like something you would never actually see in print?

Yet the author of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s obituary didn’t hesitate before writing the following about her last week:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

In fact, Obituaries editor William McDonald still sees nothing wrong with it. In his words, he’s “surprised…[because] it never occurred to [him] that this would be read as sexist,” and if he had to re-write it again, he still “wouldn’t do anything differently.”

I want to make one thing perfectly clear. There’s not a problem with mentioning Brill’s family, friends, and loved ones. It’s not a problem to note how wonderfully Brill balanced her domestic and professional lives. Brill was a female scientist during a time when very few women could occupy that role in society, and that means something truly important.

But the problem here is really that if “Yvonne” were “Yvan,” the obit would have looked fundamentally different. If we’re talking up the importance of work-life balance and familial roles for women but we’re not also mentioning those things about men, that’s a problem. If a woman’s accomplishments must be accompanied by a reassurance that she really was “a good Mom,” but a man’s accomplishments are allowed to stand on their own, that’s a problem. And lest you think that I only care about women, let’s not act like this doesn’t have a real and dangerous impact on men, too. If a man spends years of his life as a doting father and caring husband, yet his strong devotion to his family is not considered an important fact for his obituary because he’s male…then yes, that’s also a big problem.

The fact that so many people don’t understand why it might be unnerving that the writer’s idea for a good story arc in Brill’s obituary was to lead with her role as a wife and mother, and then let the surprise that she was actually a really smart rocket scientist come in later as a shocking twist? That’s benevolent sexism.

Why is Benevolent Sexism a Problem?

Admittedly, this research begs an obvious question. If benevolently sexist comments seem like nothing more than compliments, why are they problematic? Is it really “sexism” if the content of the statements seems positive towards women?

After all, the obituary noted nothing more than how beloved Brill was as a wife and a mother. Why should anyone be upset by that? Sure, men wouldn’t be written about in the same way, but who cares? It’s so nice!

Well, for one thing, benevolently sexist statements aren’t all sunshine and butterflies. They often end up implying that women are weak, sensitive creatures that need to be “protected.” While this may seem positive to some, for others – especially women in male-dominated fields – it creates a damaging stereotype.

As Glick and Fiske themselves note in their seminal 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 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 a later paper, Glick and Fiske went on to determine the extent to which 15,000 men and women across 19 different countries endorse both hostile and benevolently sexist statements. First of all, they found that hostile and benevolent sexism tend to correlate highly across nations. So, it is not the case that people who endorse hostile sexism don’t tend to endorse benevolent sexism, whereas those who endorse benevolent sexism look nothing like the ”real” sexists. On the contrary, those who endorsed benevolent sexism were likely to admit that they also held explicit, hostile attitudes towards women (although one does not necessarily have to endorse these hostile attitudes in order to engage in benevolent sexism).

File:Chemical compound being drawn.jpgSecondly, they discovered that benevolent sexism was a significant predictor of nationwide gender inequality, independent of the effects of hostile sexism. In countries where the men were more likely to endorse benevolent sexism, even when controlling for hostile sexism, men also lived longer, were more educated, had higher literacy rates, made significantly more money, and actively participated in the political and economic spheres more than their female counterparts. The warm, fuzzy feelings surrounding benevolent sexism come at a cost, and that cost is often actual, objective gender equality.

The Insidious Nature of Benevolent Sexism

A recent paper by Julia Becker and Stephen Wright details even more of the insidious ways that benevolent sexism might be harmful for both women and social activism. 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.” Not only that, but this effect was partially mediated by the fact that women who were exposed to benevolent sexism were more likely to think that there are many advantages to being a woman and were also more likely to engage in system justification, a process by which people justify the status quo and believe that there are no longer problems facing disadvantaged groups (such as women) in modern day society. Furthermore, women who were exposed to hostile sexism actually displayed the opposite effect – they were more likely to intend to engage in collective action, and more willing to fight against sexism in their everyday lives.

How might this play out in a day-to-day context? Imagine that there’s an anti-female policy being brought to a vote, like a regulation that would make it easier for local businesses to fire pregnant women once they find out that they are expecting. If you are collecting signatures for a petition or trying to gather women to protest this policy and those women were recently exposed to a group of men making comments about the policy in question, it would be significantly easier to gain their support and vote down the policy if the men were commenting that pregnant women should be fired because they were dumb for getting pregnant in the first place. However, if they instead happened to mention that women are much more compassionate than men and make better stay-at-home parents as a result, these remarks might actually lead these women to be less likely to fight an objectively sexist policy.

“I Mean, Is Sexism Really Still A Problem In 2013?”

We often hear people claiming that sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination that seem to be outdated are “no longer really a problem.” Some people legitimately believe this to be true, while others (particularly women and racial minorities) find it ridiculous that others could be so blind to the problems that still exist. So why does this disparity exist? Why is it so difficult for so many people to see that sexism and racism are still alive and thriving?

Maybe the answer lies right here, on the benevolent side of prejudice. While “old fashioned” forms of discrimination may have died down quite a bit (after all, it really isn’t quite as socially acceptable in most areas of the world to be as explicitly sexist and/or racist as people have been in the past), more “benevolent” forms of discrimination still very much exist, and they have their own sneaky ways of suppressing equality. Unaffected bystanders (or perpetrators) may construe benevolently sexist sentiments as harmless or even beneficial; in fact, as demonstrated by Becker and Wright, targets may even feel better about themselves after exposure to benevolently sexist statements. This could be, in some ways, even worse than explicit, hostile discrimination; 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.

However, to those people who still may be tempted to argue that benevolent sexism is nothing more than an overreaction to well-intentioned compliments, let me pose this question: What happens when there is a predominant stereotype saying that women are better stay-at-home parents than men because they are inherently more caring, maternal, and compassionate? It seems nice enough, but how does this ideology affect the woman who wants to continue to work full time after having her first child and faces judgment from her colleagues who accuse her of neglecting her child? How does it affect the man who wants to stay at home with his newborn baby, only to discover that his company doesn’t offer paternity leave because they assume that women are the better candidates to be staying at home?

At the end of the day, “good intent” is not a panacea. Benevolent sexism may very well seem like harmless flattery to many people, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t insidiously dangerous.

To conclude, I’ll now ask you to think about recent events surrounding Elise Andrew, creator of the wildly popular I F–king Love Science Facebook page. When she shared her personal Twitter account with the page’s 4.4 million fans, many commented on the link because they were absolutely SHOCKED…about what? Why, of course, about the fact that she is female.

“I had no idea that IFLS had such a beautiful face!”

“holy hell, youre a HOTTIE!”

“you mean you’re a girl, AND you’re beautiful? wow, i just liked science a lil bit more today ^^”

“I thought that because of all the ways you were so proud to spout off “I f–king love science” in a difient swary manner against people who hated sware words being used that you was a dude.”

“you’re a girl!? I always imagined you as a guy; don’t know why; well, nice to see to how you look like i guess”

“What?!!? Gurlz don’t like science! LOL Totally thought you were a dude.”

“It’s not just being a girl that’s the surprise, but being a fit girl! (For any non-Brits, fit, in this context, means hot/bangable/shagtastic/attractive).”

Right. See, that’s the thing. Elise felt uncomfortable with this, as did many others out there who saw it — and rightfully so. Yet many people would call her (and others like her) oversensitive for feeling negatively about statements that appear to be compliments. Many thought that Elise should have been happy that others were calling her attractive, or pointing out that it’s idiosyncratic for her to be a female who loves science. What Elise (and many others) felt was the benevolently sexist side of things — the side that perpetuates a stereotype that women (especially attractive women) don’t “do” science, and that the most noteworthy thing to comment on about a female scientist is what she looks like.

Unfortunately, it’s very likely that no one walked away from this experience having learned anything. People who could tell that this was offensive were obviously willing to recognize it as such, but people who endorsed those statements just thought they were being nice. Because they weren’t calling her incompetent or unworthy, none of them were willing to recognize it as sexism, even when explicitly told that that’s what it was — even though, based on research, we know that this sort of behavior has actual, meaningful consequences for society and for gender equality.

That right there?

That’s the real problem with benevolent sexism.

This is a revamped version of a piece that I originally posted at the Scientific American Guest Blog in January 2012. I am re-posting it now because, unfortunately, current events indicate that there seems to be some need for people to get a quick refresher. You can read the original post by clicking the “From The Archives” icon at the top of the page.


Becker, J., & Wright, S. (2011). Yet another dark side of chivalry: Benevolent sexism undermines and hostile sexism motivates collective action for social change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (1), 62-77 DOI: 10.1037/a0022615

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

Glick, P., Fiske, S., Mladinic, A., Saiz, J., Abrams, D., Masser, B., Adetoun, B., Osagie, J., Akande, A., Alao, A., Annetje, B., Willemsen, T., Chipeta, K., Dardenne, B., Dijksterhuis, A., Wigboldus, D., Eckes, T., Six-Materna, I., Expósito, F., Moya, M., Foddy, M., Kim, H., Lameiras, M., Sotelo, M., Mucchi-Faina, A., Romani, M., Sakalli, N., Udegbe, B., Yamamoto, M., Ui, M., Ferreira, M., & López, W. (2000). Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: Hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (5), 763-775 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.79.5.763

Image Credits:

Female Scientist Drawing Chemical Compound courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.

Yvonne Brill with President Barack Obama courtesy of Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Joshua B 11:05 am 04/2/2013


    I don’t believe I’m guilty of this myself, but I do find myself complimenting others on their appearance at work. I work with mostly guys, and am straight myself, but is that also considered benevolent sexism? I don’t feel it is but I’m curious now after reading the article.

    My other question is, do you feel that this is still done in other areas? Racism, and such?

    -Joshua B

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  2. 2. lmp776 11:19 am 04/2/2013

    This woman totally disagrees with you, Melanie. You see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear. You’ve twisted a whole lot of nothing into something, but seeing your bio, I’m not surprised.

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  3. 3. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:30 am 04/2/2013

    That’s cool, except that this isn’t just my personal opinion; I’m citing peer reviewed research that has been replicated across multiple labs in over a dozen cultures for over 2 decades. But you keep doing you and attacking the credentials of writers that you disagree with!

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  4. 4. Paleoecologist 11:43 am 04/2/2013

    This is such a helpful article– I’ve referred to it (in its original form) so many times in discussions with others who don’t understand that benevolent sexism is a thing.

    Also, Imp776 does a great job of illustrating the fact that women can be sexist, too.

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  5. 5. Hraefn 11:49 am 04/2/2013

    Imp, generally,launching a personal attack against the other side in an argument tends to indicate one has already lost. An ad hominem attack against the person, rather than the argument, is a logical fallacy. If you disagree, why not provide some counterpoints or evidence of your own to challenge the essential point of this article? As the author indicates, this viewpoint is backed by substantial research. Regardless of how high an opinion you may have of your own intellect, simply saying “I disagree” and insulting the writer is insufficient to rebut the underlying point. Further, it demeans the public discourse. It is difficult to have a substantial discussion about real issues if people only fling insults at each other.

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  6. 6. MarkPezz 12:11 pm 04/2/2013

    What about situations where it isn’t a case of stereotype but statistical probability?

    IE. Saying to someone “Blue looks good on you because it goes with your eyes.”

    Do we do away with compliments entirely to avoid being seen as benevolently sexist?

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  7. 7. Tanmay 12:19 pm 04/2/2013

    Dear Melanie,

    This is such a well written, fair and objective article. You are very right – career minded women and as well as family oriented men, deserve to be treated with respect on conscious and sub-conscious levels.

    I often cringe at feminists overreacting. As a guy, its either guys talking down to women or feminists nitpicking every perceived insult and innuendo.

    In the world of extremes, I am thankful for your sane and thoughtful explanation of how the world should be.

    I would have written Yvonne’s obit the same way, but also for guys. I think family > work.

    If I say someone is cute, it could be of either gender and always as an equal. Books that say men/women are from Mars/Venus are just…. so ignorant.

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  8. 8. MarkPezz 12:19 pm 04/2/2013

    OK that is admittedly a terrible example, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.

    What is the solution to this issue?

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  9. 9. Melanie Tannenbaum 12:31 pm 04/2/2013

    For all of the commenters who have asked questions to whom I have not yet responded – I am not ignoring you! If I have not responded, it is only because I would like to spend some time on my replies, as many of you have raised great points and very interesting inquiries. I am teaching today until 3:30 CST and then will be in a meeting from 4-5, so I am not sure when I will have time to sit down and respond. Hopefully it will be tonight. Please continue to check in, as I do plan to provide a thorough response and would love to continue this important discussion here in the comments!

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  10. 10. Derick D 12:37 pm 04/2/2013


    I think you have a very one-sided view of sexism. You said:

    “Hostile sexism is what most people think of when they picture “sexism” – angry, explicitly negative attitudes towards women. ”

    What about angry, explicitly negative attitudes towards men? Certainly, sexism against women is the larger problem, and deserves study on its own. However, if you’re going to talk broadly about sexism, as you are doing here, to take the position that sexism is only about men mistreating women is to do an injustice both to men and to women.

    I’m a marketing researcher, and a few years back I worked on a study for a retailer that felt it was losing touch with its male consumers. Our goal was to understand the male mind in a holistic sort of way – basically, to move past the “beer & babes” stereotypes that were guiding their marketing efforts and help them see what really mattered to men. There were considerably more women than men on the research team (about 2:1), which is not unusual in this field. Within a week of the project kick-off, about a dozen “stupid men” jokes had been circulated via email by the women on the project team. Not a single joke that was sexists against women was circulated. Indeed, were such a joke to be circulated, it seems likely that the sender would have lost their job as a result. One of the women on the team mentioned this, and the team reflected on the discrepancy. Many of the women on the team realized that they had some pretty negative male stereotypes guiding their actions, which they had never really even noticed before. Over the course of the study, every single women on the team commented independently that she was looking at men in a new, less one-dimensional way, and that their relationships with the men in their lives were improved as a result. The obvious implication is that the negative stereotypes that those women had previously, and unknowingly, held were negatively impacting their relationships. Yes, I realized that this is hardly scientifically rigorous. However, it does qualitatively demonstrate how (some) women are sexist towards men, and that their sexism is destructive both to themselves and to the men in their lives.

    I’m not saying that sexism against men is either as prevalent or as individually damaging as sexism against women tends to be. Clearly, this is not the case. However, when we assume that sexism is only against women, we give women license to be sexist against men – we propagate sexism, rather than fighting it. If women want men to get onside and start thinking equitably, women need to think equitably too – a double-standard where anti-male sexism is acceptable is hardly progress. It’s more like a setback in a different direction.

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  11. 11. Trail Snail 12:55 pm 04/2/2013


    Interesting article. I appreciate your writing.

    I wonder if you perceive all Complementarian worldviews as benevolent sexism? Do you think that Complementarian views can/should be respected as healthy by mental health professionals in general, or are those views something that you’d prefer always to be labeled as harmful by mental health professionals?


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  12. 12. JPGumby 1:09 pm 04/2/2013

    MarkPezz, I think what you’ve pointed out is exactly what can make these things insidious. It IS a compliment to tell someone they look good or that they are caring. The problem is when it’s a backhanded way of saying how odd for someone of your sex/race/profession to have this quality.

    And DerickD, any parent should be able to tell you the immense effort that goes into socializing our children into their appropriate sex roles, from clothes to toys to books. Sexism is a two-way street, and marketing in general seems like one of the most reliable places to look for examples (e.g. how often is a male cast in a commercial for cleaning products).


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  13. 13. Bashir 1:16 pm 04/2/2013

    My other question is, do you feel that this is still done in other areas? Racism, and such?

    There’s definitely a version of “benevolent racism”. The best example I could give you that matches the current discussion is the tendency to note that black athletes are “physically talented” and “naturals” while white athletes are “hard working” and “smart”. All are compliments so no problem, right?

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  14. 14. patrickdijusto 1:26 pm 04/2/2013

    The fake Einstein obit is a strawman argument. You’re exactly right, an obituary that started with his role as dad and then casually mentioned relativity would never have been written for one very important reason: Albert Einstein was one of the most famous humans on the planet when he died. Everyone knew who he was, and what he had done.

    If I were writing an obit for an obscure male scientist who sidetracked his career for his kids, and yet still managed to invent something extremely important, I’d be tempted to start with the “Dad”, and then contrast it with the invention.

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  15. 15. jtdwyer 1:54 pm 04/2/2013

    I can appreciate the viewpoint presented here. However, by extension I feel guilty about telling my granddaughters how pretty they were when they were young girls, as that might have reinforced society’s valuing of females more for their appearance than achievements.

    Yet men and women are indisputably statistically distinct in their behaviors and capabilities. These distinctions are not just roles forced on individuals (although society can certainly reinforce, restrict and limit an individual’s self perception). As I understand, small children throughout the world tend to adopt gender specific activities without any reinforcement. Children do have gender specific abilities and varying rates of intellectual development in specific areas.

    So where are we to draw the line? Should we as individuals and as a society treat individuals identically, ignoring gender distinctions, or should we value each individuals inherent capabilities?

    Personally, I recognize distinct differences in the abilities of all individuals and feel that its insincere and disingenuous to treat everyone as if they had identical capabilities and potential. However, societies’ institutions should by rule treat everyone equally. Yet not everyone can be president (not that anyone should want to be) or be equally successful in their endeavors, and should not expect to be.

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  16. 16. Simon Says 2:02 pm 04/2/2013


    I think you are taking the syntax only and ignoring the meaning. Let’s take a look at the FB writer. She’s a woman. Most women don’t get into sciences, one of the reasons there is a significant push by this country now to involve girls into such endeavors. The writer, I am sure, truly meant it as a compliment, nothing else. It is not an insult unless you take it that way. I am not “blaming the victim,” just pointing out that perhaps your views need readjusting.

    If I opened a door for you would you be insulted? If I held your chair or coat for you would you be insulted? By the way I read this then yes, you would. I am being “protective” because obviously you are too fair/delicate to hold your own coat, or chair, or door. You would also be completely wrong. Those actions are called manners. Trying to be nice to a woman verbally, no matter how awkward the presentation (as seen above) is still trying to have some manners.

    In other words, if I ever met you, I couldn’t be gracious, couldn’t tell you you look nice, or do any of the things that help people negotiate the tangled path of human interaction if at any instance we somehow floated to the subject of your career.

    Even though you might not be a militant feminist who scoffs at any help a man may give, your subversive feminist actions tend to cut away at the very core of how men and women react to each other.

    Not only that, do you really ever expect 50 K+ years of evolution to go away because it might “seem” sexist? C’mon. But seriously, if you see insults in every little thing, I fear you are going to end up very sad and lonely one day.


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  17. 17. cryofpaine 2:09 pm 04/2/2013

    There seems to be a lot of questions about what is or isn’t sexist. Here are a couple simple rules of thumb:

    If you would not say the same comment to a man or woman that you are about to say to a woman or man, it might be sexist.

    If it reinforces existing stereotypes that men are stronger, smarter, more violent, etc. and women are weaker, domestic, better nurturers, etc. – it might be sexist.

    If it places emphasis on a woman’s appearance in a context where appearance is not a factor, it might be sexist.

    If it prescribes behaviors, beliefs, interests, activities, manner of dress, etc. based on a person’s gender, it might be sexist.

    If you believe that the parts between a person’s legs, a couple chemicals, or two of the 46 chromosomes (constituting less than 10% of our total genetic structure) dictates how they think, what they are interested in, and what they are capable of – then you might be a sexist.

    Basically if you believe that you have the right to dictate who a person is based on what sex they are, then you are a sexist. And yes, sexism goes both ways.

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  18. 18. Acoyauh2 2:18 pm 04/2/2013

    I agree with Derick D.
    As much as I liked and agree with the article, it gives me the creeps that statements like:
    “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…” actually figure in a scientific text, oblivious of the sexism in them. Sexism can, and does, work both ways.

    As long as differences in treatment between genders are maintained this way, sexism lives on.

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  19. 19. dusheck 2:21 pm 04/2/2013

    Melanie Tannenbaum’s piece is a fabulous explanation of how insidious is the process of reminding women that they are before all else women. They are women before they are scientists, women before they are leaders, women before they are artists, and even women before they are people. I F***ing Love Science was a perfect demonstration of how upsetting it is to many people to discover that a person they admired is not after all a man. It changes everything.

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  20. 20. OlgatheGreat 2:42 pm 04/2/2013

    It seems like the problem can be summarized as people assuming that either women have different values than men or else that they ought to be judged according to different values. Things that are not important in men are important in women.

    By that definition, saying that women are better managers because they are more empathetic is not sexist– being a good manager is valued equally for everyone and women are lauded for having a trait that, had men had it, would have made them better managers as well.

    Whether or not they actually are is an empirical question. This, however, differs from the obituary example, where a person is judged according to a different metric altogether.

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  21. 21. Sharondio 2:54 pm 04/2/2013

    I thought the obituary example was priceless! I flashed on the movie, “A League of Their Own” when the PR newsreels were showing the players as good hostesses and downplaying their ball-playing skills.

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  22. 22. Matelund 2:54 pm 04/2/2013

    Honestly I think the best solution is to not acknowledge with talking points (at least in the workplace) gender, race or any issue that society deems on the losing side. I find this is a good strategy to stay in good grace with my employers. This may just work better for me because I have a working class position. Does someone have a link to a better solution that has worked well and has been tested by the social psychologists Melanie Tannenbaum is talking about?

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  23. 23. cacodaemon 2:57 pm 04/2/2013

    Ironically, the fact that woman writes an article about men being sexists looks sexist to me. BTW, not sure what is the ultimate goal of people like author – joined sports leagues where men and women play hockey together; Olympic games where both men and women compete for single medal (in boxing for example) and unisex restrooms?

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  24. 24. foufvious 3:11 pm 04/2/2013

    “Unfortunately, it’s very likely that no one walked away from this experience having learned anything. ”

    I most certainly learned something from your article and have more work to do on myself.
    I was one of those who was surprised when I found out Emily was the author of IFLS. I did not make any post about it, but i thought it just the same. I never even realized what i was doing.
    I have a daughter and try to make sure she is exposed to everything regardless of typical gender stereotypes.

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  25. 25. cacodaemon 3:33 pm 04/2/2013

    Olga, you can’t say that

    “By that definition, saying that women are better managers because they are more empathetic is not sexist– being a good manager is valued equally for everyone and women are lauded for having a trait that, had men had it, would have made them better managers as well.”

    According to the author it will result in stereotype that women are better managers than men. And it will result in men being discriminated when applying for management position (I hope she is equally worried about women’s sexism as men’s sexism). Pretty much you can’t say anything about any kind of physiological, psycological, statistical or any other differences between men and women unless some anti-sexist Politburo approves that it is appropriate to say so in a given context.

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  26. 26. Quantumburrito 4:06 pm 04/2/2013

    I think it’s entirely reasonable to praise a women’s ability to balance her personal and professional life. What we need to do is to not stop emphasizing women’s personal side but apply the same standard to men. It is an achievement for any man or woman to raise kids, cook meals and still be an accomplished scientist.

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  27. 27. N a g n o s t i c 4:49 pm 04/2/2013

    Obsessing about sexism is sexism. And, not the benevolent kind.

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  28. 28. N a g n o s t i c 5:24 pm 04/2/2013

    Oh shucks, I guess I’ll obsess a little.

    Women now complete college and gain advanced degrees at a higher rate than men. Never-married women earn more than never-married men.
    Boys in school acting like boys in school are being diagnosed with ADHD at ever-higher rates and drugs are used get those square pegs into the round holes our society pushes on them.

    Typically, women wear makeup and eye-catching clothing and accessories – eye-catching compared to what men typically wear. Typically, women worry far more about their body image. These characteristics have been displayed by women for thousands of years. They’re not “bad” characteristics. It can be reasonably assumed that a person encountering another person who’s physically fit, clothed in a well put together ensemble at work, might offer a compliment based on physical appearance. I submit it’s unreasonable for the subject of such a compliment to feel victimized.

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  29. 29. larkalt 5:29 pm 04/2/2013

    There’s a concrete version of benevolent sexism, too. Guys invading your space, and when if you object, they tell you you’re “too sensitive”. Like the time I was having a conversation with the manager at a snack bar, about their service, and he put his arm around me.
    Or – this is not so benevolent – being interrupted a lot. And if you say “Don’t interrupt me”, you get the reaction that you’re not being social enough, not pleasant enough. It’s the same thing – women’s wish to get along with people socially, means they are pressured into accepting being treated with disrespect, in concrete, physical ways.

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  30. 30. epynephrin 6:17 pm 04/2/2013

    When I die, I genuinely hope my cooking is mentioned in my obit.

    I don’t mean that in the same way some guys say “I’d love it if women catcalled me on the street” (I’m not sure I would), I genuinely mean, I like cooking and it should be mentioned.

    I admit, I was among the IFLS fans who were surprised to learn the curator was actually a woman. However, I was mostly surprised in the context of science being a heavily male-dominated field, and the posts generally seeming gender-neutral. It was an incorrect assumption, but I am actually glad to have been corrected.

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  31. 31. jtdwyer 6:28 pm 04/2/2013

    Again, statistically, there are biological distinctions between genders, including brain physiology. To imply that the perceptions of gender differences are solely the product of social stereotyping is sexist dogma.

    I’m pretty sure that statistically, in most genetically differentiated populations, men really are significantly bigger and stronger than women. There are also many individuals that deviate from this norm, but it’s only natural for people to generalize obvious distinctions. I hope this revelation doesn’t offend anyone…

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  32. 32. sofiafield 6:46 pm 04/2/2013

    jtdwyer, I think the problem is when you force all women and men into specific roles. Yes, in general men are stronger than women, but some women are stronger than some men, some men are more sensitive than some women, and so on. There’s no reason to think men or women won’t do just as well as their counterparts in whatever role they choose, regardless of physiology.

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  33. 33. martalli 6:49 pm 04/2/2013

    I understand what the author is talking about here, the points are well delivered. Anyone who claims they have not been benevolently sexist is likely deluding themselves, however. The issue here is nice behavior which nonetheless leaves a nagging feeling behind. I would suspect that most of the time, the people projecting benevolent sexism are not doing so intentionally. If this is not brought to their attention, how will they be aware that the other person is being made uncomfortable? It is also possible that conversation, comments, and so on that make one person uncomfortable will not do so to others. Clear right and wrong behavior can be difficult to define in this case, because the boundaries are determined by culture and background, which vary from person to person and over time. Perfectly acceptable behavior in one situation could be too forward in another situation, and even too withdrawn in another situation, separated by time and culture. What can be said for people who simply have a lower level of social awareness, for whom learning acceptable social behavior and then learning changing social behavior is more difficult? The intention of treating others with respect here seems to pale in comparison to how the other person feels, which is unknown unless expressed.

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  34. 34. cryofpaine 7:04 pm 04/2/2013

    Ah, but the question is, are the biological distinctions between genders the cause or the result? Our brains are formed by our experiences as much if not more than by genetics and biology. So do differences observed in the brains of men and women occur because of an inherent difference between men and women, or because society shapes them to be different because of gender stereotypes and pressure to conform to society’s expectations?

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  35. 35. Melanie Tannenbaum 7:05 pm 04/2/2013

    Please note: I welcome respectful disagreement, questions, and criticism. I plan on responding to everything posted here later tonight, when I have a little more time. I have also allowed almost every single comment submitted to pass through moderation, whether the commenter agrees or disagrees with my main point.

    However, if you choose to submit a barrage of inflammatory comments, each one written in a manner that is clearly intended to mock me and/or my writing, I will not hesitate to move your comments straight into the trash. This is my space, which I am allowed to moderate as I see fit. It is not a free-for-all, public forum. My blog, my rules. You are free to be rude elsewhere, but not in my space.

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  36. 36. jh443 7:49 pm 04/2/2013

    I am a male who is getting sick and tired of the blatantly hostile sexism against men. Just take a look at sitcoms – almost without fail, men are portrayed as bumbling fools, with the woman there to save him from himself. It’s gotten to the point where denigrating comments about men are politically correct. Hey, I’d take benevolent sexism over hostile any day.

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  37. 37. JPGumby 7:58 pm 04/2/2013

    @Nagnostic: “Typically, women wear makeup and eye-catching clothing and accessories – eye-catching compared to what men typically wear. Typically, women worry far more about their body image. These characteristics have been displayed by women for thousands of years.”
    Actually, until quite recently even manly men were often peacocks in their clothing and makeup in many cultures (see Louis XIV) – for example high heeled shoes were invented for men. I would try to be careful about assuming that late 20th/early 21st American male culture is typical of all men everywhere at all times.

    @jtdwyer: “Yet men and women are indisputably statistically distinct in their behaviors and capabilities. These distinctions are not just roles forced on individuals (although society can certainly reinforce, restrict and limit an individual’s self perception). As I understand, small children throughout the world tend to adopt gender specific activities without any reinforcement. ”

    Yes, in most cultures males and females adopt gender specific roles. This is typically heavily reinforced by the parents and parent subsitutes like teachers – do you recall lining up boy/girl/boy/girl or boys in one line, girls in another? This *seems* to be human nature. But the roles taken don’t necessarily align with “inherent” abilities (except the historically physically necessary aspects of pregnancy and child rearing). Put another way, people around the world agree men and women are different, but they differ on how they are different – which sex is more sexually driven, which is more emotional, which is better at “organizing” all differ.

    All I’m saying, I guess, is I try to be careful about any statement about any “group” of people, because all the hard data I’ve ever seen says that in almost all realms, the overlap between groups is far greater than the difference. Generalizations are always wrong (including this one), but worse they generally serve to limit individual freedom.

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  38. 38. Derick D 8:00 pm 04/2/2013

    jtdwyer: While I think you’re correct about gross physiological differences like size, i think there’s still little consensus on whether the average differences noted brain physiology (and the tendency of children to pick up gender-linked traits) can be assumed to entirely “nature” and not influenced by “nurture”.
    The brain changes in response to stimuli of every sort, and considering the omnipresence of socially-enforced gender roles in virtually aspect of life, it seems possible that at least some differences in brain structure that have been noted between men and women may have been caused or exaggerated by the fact that the brains under study are constantly bombarded by stimuli that reinforce gender stereotypes. The same goes for children picking up gender-linked behaviors. Before we can understand whether men and women are actually different “upstairs”, we’ll need to find some men and women who grew up devoid of gender role stimuli.

    I have to say, I really feel for you when you talk about feeling guilty about telling your granddaughters that they are (or were) cute. If I were you, I wouldn’t let this one issue prevent you from saying something nice to your granddaughters. If the rest of your behavior towards and around them is free of sexism, there’s no reason that they should ever believe that you’re complimenting them just because they’re girls. You’re their grandpa – telling them all the ways that they are or ever have been wonderful is in your job description, and they need and deserve that positive reinforcement from you. To cut them off from your praise for fear of reinforcing a negative stereotype would be to substitute a real injustice for an imagined one.

    Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to not be able to compliment a woman on her appearance because it might reinforce a negative stereotype. There is NOTHING sexist about complementing someone’s appearance, as long as their gender isn’t the reason you are complementing them! For instance – I recently told a guy who lives in my building (Stephen) that he’s looking great lately. He’s been working out and eating better the last few months, and it shows. If my neighbor had been Stephanie rather than Stephen, I would have said exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason – to show support and admiration for a fellow human being who’s been working hard at an important goal, a goal which includes looking better!

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  39. 39. qhliy8dz 8:01 pm 04/2/2013

    How does benevolent sexism interact with affirmative action or initiatives specifically aimed at encouraging girls/women to study specific fields? They might be well-intentioned, but it seems to me like they run the same risk of undermining workplace credibility or, in the case of young students, essentially conveying the message of “no one expects you to be interested on your own.”

    Where do you think the balance is between letting women know they’re welcome in historically male-dominated fields v. reinforcing traditional stereotyping and suggesting that women need “help” to make it in those fields?

    On a different note… In the case of Yvonne Brill’s obituary, I think it’s important to consider the historical context. Part of what makes her a unique person is that she was able to accomplish something that was outside the expectations of her time. Mentioning her more-stereotypical home life is meaningful because she neither adhered strictly to the culture of the time, nor did she adopt a completely counter-culture ideology. It quashes stereotypes from both sides of the aisle. I don’t think I’d have OPENED with her personal life, but it certainly plays an important part in defining the life she lead and the challenges she faced.

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  40. 40. aschwortz 8:03 pm 04/2/2013

    I’m so glad I came across this article. It’s such a relief to know that there’s actually a name for this phenomenon that’s bothered me for the last, oh 20 years, and that there are sound reasons behind why it’s always bothered me. Thanks for reposting this. :)

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  41. 41. Crystalshine_Marie 8:11 pm 04/2/2013

    Simon Says, the problem isn’t in the kindnesses you bestow, it is in how and why you do them. If you hold a woman’s coat so she can get it on out of kindness, great. Would you do so for a man as well though? If you are first to the door you should hold it open for whoever comes next, male or female. If you aren’t first to the door yet make a point of getting to it first to hold it for her as if she was born without arms? Maybe it’s time reexamine your views…

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  42. 42. jtdwyer 8:25 pm 04/2/2013

    I was addressing the perception of sterotyping when physical distinctions exist. Note that I also stated:
    “There are also many individuals that deviate from this norm, but it’s only natural for people to generalize obvious distinctions.”

    You stated:
    “There’s no reason to think men or women won’t do just as well as their counterparts in whatever role they choose, regardless of physiology.”

    Your contention is falsified in areas where physical distinctions are critical to performance, such as weightlifting and basketball, for example. How many women pro basketball players can dunk; how many men can? We all must face our own limitations when success is based solely on performance. I never could have had a career as a pro basketball player, no matter how hard I worked, since selection is a discriminatory process based on performance.

    There are other areas of employment where brain physiology may play a crucial role in determining performance, such as brain surgery. While there may be a woman who is the best brain surgeon, that most brain surgeons are men may be due to performance factors rather than arbitrary gender opportunity bias. Most men could not possibly become competent brain surgeons, either.

    Everyone, including my very capable granddaughters, should by rule be given opportunities to achieve according to their capabilities.

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  43. 43. mg_ 8:28 pm 04/2/2013

    @jtdwyer, I’d like to comment a bit on statistics. Humans characteristics come in distributions, not sufficient statistics (mean, stdev, etc.). When starting a statement with “men/women on average…”, anything that comes after that is either sexist justification or meaningless (I believe, and in general).

    The reason I mention this is that any one sample person could be anywhere in the multidimensional characteristic space that makes up a human. Those generalizations are unhelpful when dealing with a specific person. To see this just remember that people were surprised IFLS was female. That implies that on all the observable characteristics, only people’s priors (which are where sexism comes from) determined IFLS’s gender.

    The ‘statistics’ argument always bothers me because when I think about it, all I see is justification, and no benefit. You are no better off assuming a woman is compassionate when you meet her than when meeting a man. It’s not until you meet them and determine if they are compassionate that the knowledge benefits you. If you are going to confirm or deny assumptions anyway upon interaction, then why bring sexist priors to the table? I think it’s easier (read better) to start with ‘people are all wildly different’ and learn about the individual you are interacting with from there.

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  44. 44. negablade 8:33 pm 04/2/2013

    It’s impossible to please everyone. The expectation that we must know how anything we say or do will be received by everyone else is ultimately unreasonable. With the exception of a few trivial cases, anything you say or do that conveys any real information will invariably make someone upset or uncomfortable. At some point the burden moves to the audience and the expectation that they are strong enough not to be bruised by a simple comment or compliment.

    If Andy gives Billie a nice compliment, it behoves Billie to take the compliment in the way it was intended. If Billie chooses to take the compliment as sexist in spite of Andy’s intent, it speaks more to Billie’s own biases or insecurities rather than Andy’s intent. Andy cannot be held responsible for how Billie takes the compliment.

    Further complications develop when we become so paranoid about offending others that we obscure or omit our words. For instance, there is a clear gender disparity in the sciences with far more males working in the field than females. Ignoring it because it might offend someone does not make the problem go away or redress the issue. Researching the problem, but then dressing up the conclusions to avoid wounding a specific set of readers is self-defeating and disingenuous.

    As an interesting personal thought experiment, consider what gender you assigned to Andy and Billie in the previous example. Both names are gender neutral, deliberately chosen for that reason. Yet I doubt that many people read that as gender neutral. We all have biases. Maybe we should make allowances for how our own personal issues colour the way we interact with others.

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  45. 45. negablade 8:34 pm 04/2/2013

    I also have issues with the comparison between Yvonne Brill’s obit and a satirical rewrite for Einstein. Compare the first paragraph for both obits. Einstein is noted for grocery shopping and taking out the garbage. Both are chores, often seen as tedious. There is nothing special about either. Yvonne is noted for her beef stroganoff. This is something shared with others. I remember my own grandmother for her apple shortcake. It isn’t the only thing I remember but it is an important memory. It was something we shared as a family, an act that shows she loved us. I do not have fond memories of garbage day.

    Yvonne took 8 years off from work to raise her children. That says to me that her family was important, perhaps more important than her career. If her priority was her family, it follows that her family should come first in the obit. Einstein didn’t take 8 years off from research physics to pursue his passion as a patent clerk. The obit should reflect the deceased, not the reader. It may seem reasonable to describe Yvonne as a scientist first and a mother second, but if that doesn’t reflect her own life it’s not fitting. It should describe who she was, not who we want her to be.

    It all comes down to how our own biases affect how we interpret the actions of others. If we want to see someone as sexist, then something they say or do will be sexist.

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  46. 46. syzygyygyzys 8:44 pm 04/2/2013

    PLEASE! PLEASE! Take out the rude and unconstructive comments. While I applaud your commitment to answer each comment, there are lots of them. Just reading mine will enough.

    A long time ago in a place far, far away they made freshmen take aptitude tests before selecting a major. The answer came back psychology and the like, but I finally talked them into engineering. It paid better.

    Because I talked them into allowing engineering, I now have an equity interest in promoting workplace productivity. But the psychology would be interesting on its own.

    I believe I understand what you are saying. If we were discussing your essay, I would ask the questions below. These are not necessarily in order of importance.

    • I’ve viewed your website. In your opinion, how has your physical appearance affected your academic career? How do you believe it will affect your career in the future?

    Anecdotal observations lead me to believe that increasing bilateral symmetry in people correlates positively with their advancement. Presuming there is evidence that bias exists, should it be addressed in the same manner as racism, sexism, etc.?

    You have generated a considerable number of comments. Did your picture at the bottom of your blog play a role? (Just to be clear, I intend no criticism. I just wonder about it.)

    • What contribution to surprise that a woman created IFLS could be explained by the ratio of women to men with technical degrees or jobs?

    • Do I see a milder form of what was directed at Ms. Andrew in some of the complementary comments here?
    o Odd that Ms. Andrew didn’t expect that there are idiots in the blogosphere considering her experience. I don’t defend the idiots, but I suspect she would have received “uncomfortable” comments after putting her picture on the web in any context. There were likely unprintable comments as well.

    I’m a bit uncomfortable with a blog named IFLS, but perhaps I’m behind the times?

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  47. 47. outsidethebox 8:49 pm 04/2/2013

    “Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology….” You now know everything you have to know about this article.

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  48. 48. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 10:10 pm 04/2/2013

    If by “you now know everything you have to know” you mean that it was written by someone who teaches social psychology to college undergraduates, has been immersed in an intensive, research-based social psychology program for four years, and has passed qualifying doctoral exams in social psychology (indicating in-depth knowledge of the field), then sure, I guess you do.

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  49. 49. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 10:35 pm 04/2/2013

    Hello syzygyygyzys,

    You raise some interesting points. I will try to address them.

    1. I don’t know how my physical appearance has impacted my academic career. I actually don’t even know how to interpret that question, as I can’t tell if you are saying something positive or negative about me. I assume positive? But I don’t know, you might be calling me ugly. Regardless, I have not felt like it has been a factor. Another psychological phenomenon that might be at play here is the “halo effect” – people tend to assign positive qualities to attractive people (seeing them as more likely to be kind, generous, smart, etc.) and negative qualities to unattractive people. In this regard, if I am considered “attractive” or “unattractive,” I could see this having an impact on something like my teacher evaluations from students. But when it comes to academic success, most of it is determined by publication record, which is blind (not only do reviewers of articles submitted for publication not see the authors’ faces, they don’t even know who they are).

    2. I don’t know if what was directed at Ms. Andrew is reflected in the complimentary comments here. I haven’t seen any commenting on my physical appearance or the fact that I am female (save for your mention of my picture, but I understand that you’re bringing that up to ask a legitimate question!). Generally, I think people who are responding positively to this piece are resonating with the content of what I wrote, not personal characteristics.

    3. As I mention earlier, yes, physical attractiveness does have a strong effect on attitudes and behavior. People are more likely to like physically attractive others, these effects start very early (as early as infancy), and as I mentioned above, the “halo effect” means that we will often overattribute positive things to attractive people. There are also correlations with height and salary – I believe that taller men make significantly more money on average, as do attractive people. I think it is certainly worth considering how “appearance” bias might play out, and think about ways to remedy it. However, I think it is easier to think of tangible policies that address race and gender groups than policies that would, say, offer affirmative action-type benefits to “ugly people.” It’s a little more subjective…

    4. I’m sure that part of the surprise is due to the skewed ratio of gender representation in STEM careers. However, I think the issue is how this surprise was expressed. Some might disagree with me here, and that’s OKAY. As I will bring up in other comments, there is no “one size fits all” approach to all of this. It is a constant process of evaluation and consideration. But, getting back to what I’m saying, my PERSONAL opinion (might not be others) is that it would have been different if people said something to the effect of, “I’m so glad to see strong female role models interested in science!” or something along those lines. I think the real problem was that the comments were often tied to her physical appearance or other “icky” things like calling her “bangable,” which is just unprofessional and weird. And something you would not typically see being said to a man.

    5. Many people are uncomfortable with the name of the blog — it’s something that some have raised with Ms. Andrew on the page itself, as many fans specifically mention that they would love to share some of the pictures with their children but cannot do so. However, that’s Elise’s choice to make.

    Thank you for commenting!
    - Melanie

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  50. 50. jtdwyer 10:54 pm 04/2/2013

    “… do differences observed in the brains of men and women occur because of an inherent difference between men and women, or because society shapes them to be different because of gender stereotypes and pressure to conform…”

    I guess that most brain brain physiology differences are related to hormonal variations between individuals, primarily Estrogens and Testosterone.

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  51. 51. Herbert 11:31 pm 04/2/2013

    “men also lived longer”

    Where were these studies conducted? Afghanistan?

    Feminism is based on a simple denial of biological roles, labeling them “sexist,” and then getting mad when they don’t immediately disappear. In all times, in evolutionary times, women’s main role was to raise the children and men’s was to provide the resources. A woman’s sense of accomplishment is obviously going to be based on the children she raised, because she is the one spending most of her time raising them. Her reproductive fitness is highly based on her ability to raise children. Men’s role, in contrast, is based on his ability to provide resources for his family. He will take pride in his accomplishments. One can say these roles are oppressive, and one can try to create a society that contradicts these roles. Many Americans, men and women, simply do not want this. Even among young liberals, women frequently do stay at home to raise their children, and men have no such desire. They are simply following their biology, and I see nothing evil about that.

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  52. 52. Mike R. 11:36 pm 04/2/2013

    For every man who has written a eulogy about a woman in that manner, I bet I could find ten thousand women. These women took pride in raising a family and accomplishing other goals. Are they sexist for doing this?

    Besides, many men are described as being a “family man” in a positive manner.

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  53. 53. weare138 11:37 pm 04/2/2013

    For everyone that seems to have a hard time grasping what may constitute benevolent sexism, ask yourself “Would I do this for someone of the same sex that I am?”

    Oh you’re just being “nice” or “having manners” when you open the door or you compliment someone on their attractive appearance? I’d wager if you are a man, you don’t do those things for other men. That is sexist.

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  54. 54. Mike R. 11:47 pm 04/2/2013

    The reason “society” values women more for their looks than for their accomplishments is because looks, not accomplishments, is what men are generally attracted to, whereas women are generally attracted much more to symbols of high status, such as career success.

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  55. 55. Mike R. 11:50 pm 04/2/2013

    @cryofpaine, there are great differences in physical brain structure between men and women, and very little variance in these differences.

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  56. 56. syzygyygyzys 12:56 am 04/3/2013

    Ms. Tannenbaum,

    Yes, gnarly affirmative action might be difficult to implement, what with rounding up all those uncooperative beneficiaries.

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  57. 57. FireTornado 2:16 am 04/3/2013

    After reading your blog post, I felt both a bit ashamed that I ever complimented a female co-worker, and a bit frustrated that I’m reading yet another article that tells me to never be nice to women for fear of offending.

    Overall, I can agree with your hypothesis that sexism and backhanded compliments are bad. I just wonder about how valid your particular examples are in this instance.

    1) I just disagree with the obit point all together. I feel like they lead with something personal from the family. I imagine most obits of non-newsworthy people are inclined to start off with a glimpse into their personal life or some other hook. Was this one talking about a “traditional” female role? Sure. It could have also been one of her favorite hobbies. Don’t know, don’t care. The rest of the obit revealed she’s an amazing woman that went through a lot of strife and she probably deserved more than she got. I’m betting there’s a lot of male obits out there of similar levels of prestige that have a start that is just as home-life centric.

    2) The studies, while I’m sure were executed quite well don’t look like they necessarily cover all the different things that could be going on. While they look at benevolent sexism versus hostile sexism, did they ever bother to do benevolent versus hostile? I did not see that as one of their cases they attempted in the abstracts, and it can be difficult to figure out how they controlled for the variables with that information alone. I’m not saying that the complimented women were less likely to act, I’m saying I’d probably be less likely to act if I’m not angry.

    Overall, I try and base my actions on how I want to be treated. I want to be complimented when I wear a nice outfit, so I compliment others when they do (regardless of gender). I want people in front of me to open the door for me, so I open the door for them too. About the only thing that gender does is affect which people when I look at them affect my libido, and even that has virtually no impact on how I judge their performance (I don’t think I can ever eliminate bias, but almost everyone has their own miniature sets of bias associated with them and they typically balance each other out). I’m sure my behavior will change after reading this post, in that I’ll probably be more willing to not be nice to women in fear of offending them, than to compliment/help them because I’d like the same. It won’t be a conscious change if I can help it, but it may be stuck in my subconscious for some time to come.

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  58. 58. nim411 5:34 am 04/3/2013

    This is an interesting article, but the use of obituaries is a little misleading. Most obituaries are going to point out the best in people. For both men and women they are going to point out what good fathers/mothers they were to their surviving kids. Einstein’s obit might not read like that because he wasn’t a very good husband (according to his biography). I’d say most obits I come across definitely mention that someone’s kids say they made time for them etc. If they don’t it doesn’t mean its gender neutral; they could not have been very involved in family life, or perhaps there was not enough space in the obit to include all that. You can find better examples of benevolent sexism than obits is my point. Thanks!

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  59. 59. Lagerbaer 11:10 am 04/3/2013

    A very interesting and awareness-rising article for this heterosexual white male. (If I wasn’t left handed I wouldn’t belong to any minority at all…)

    Here’s another example of “benevolent” sexism and stereotypical gender roles: I have often witnessed women being told that they “should be a model” or “you should be an actress”. I have never witnessed that a man was approached with statements to that amount, or that they should be bodybuilders.

    Some poor confused men express the fear that they now cannot even compliment a women anymore without being sexist. That is bollocks. It is all about context. Introducing the next speaker at a scientific conference isn’t the place to praise a woman’s looks. At the informal wine and cheese reception, you can certainly compliment her. But I’m sure she’d appreciate if you also commented on the talk she just gave…

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  60. 60. Melanie Tannenbaum 11:57 am 04/3/2013

    Hello everyone,

    I am now up to 60 comments (!!)

    The idea of responding to every one individually quickly became insanely overwhelming. However, I still wanted to respond to frequent concerns, and continue a constructive discussion. Therefore, I actually posted an FAQ-style “Addendum” addressing several of the comments brought up here. I invite you to read it, and I hope that it clarifies some of these issues.



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  61. 61. MarkPezz 2:30 pm 04/3/2013


    Thanks for the addendum.

    - Mark

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  62. 62. 'RikS 3:08 pm 04/3/2013

    “(e.g. how often is a male cast in a commercial for cleaning products)”
    Mr. Clean, Bounty, Ajax…
    sometimes males clean up

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  63. 63. Rixanne 3:32 pm 04/3/2013

    I have worked in a male-dominated field for over 20 years, as a programmer and as a Cisco certificated professional and trainer. When I began to teach upper-division computer science coursework at the local colleges, mainly to classrooms full of men, I always got the same thing. “You don’t LOOK like a computer nerd.” Trying to be complimentary in that I didn’t fit the visual stereotype of a female, frumpy, recluse who has no social life so her computers become her best friends.

    It took a few classes to actually earn their respect as their equal, much less someone (a woman) who (god forbid) had more knowledge and experience than they did, and who could teach them something.

    Interestingly, they all became my most outspoken advocates and cheerleaders.

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  64. 64. Mendrys 4:57 pm 04/3/2013

    We should applaud the clueless and willfully ignorant who have seen fit to comment here as they offer a clear demonstration of the problem.

    @Herbert: “Feminism is based on a simple denial of biological roles, labeling them “sexist,” and then getting mad when they don’t immediately disappear.” This is straight from the likes of Rush Limbaugh who likes to likes to call feminists “feminazis”. I wonder how it is that as a man I do not feel threatened when asked to be treated equally by a woman? True enough there are probably cases where a man gets bombarded with ridicule whenever he holds a door for a woman but this is very rare. I do it all of the time and have never received anything in return but gratitude. So Herbert, is it operating withing “biological roles” to deny a woman equal pay for the same job. Was it just biology that dicated that women not be allowed to vote or own property in the past?

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  65. 65. Matt2789 5:10 pm 04/3/2013

    In response to comment #36/Jh443 regarding “reverse sexism” towards dimwitted husbands/men in TV sitcoms.

    I suppose this could be looked at as a form of benevolent sexism towards females. The way I see it is that white men are often the butt of jokes in entertainment because ultimately society as a whole views them as being the powerful ones in control. People often find humor in viewing someone in a role that is traditionally the opposite of how they are perceived. That is why it is much more acceptable to make fun of a white man being repressed than a female or a minority. In a backwards sort of way white men should be proud of being the butt of jokes because it shows they are viewed as strong and successful!

    How many wedding/best man speeches have you heard that entertain the crowd with stories of the bride being the one in control. These speeches usually have the crowd rolling in laughter (whether they may be true or not is a different story). Can you imagine the crowds reaction if the speech were about how controlling the groom was of the bride! I would argue the fact that it is not as socially acceptable to laugh at females in the way it is towards men is a form of “Benevolent Sexism” against females.

    BTW- For what it’s worth I am a white man who is proud to have “My People” as the butt of jokes for the reasons I made above (Haha, me saying “My People” makes me sound like a white supremacist of some sort but that all feeds back into my original thought). I also happen to believe that Benevolent Sexism towards females is a very real thing but also has many gray areas.

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  66. 66. rebbaprr 6:52 pm 04/3/2013

    We have to look beyond sex, to understand true human nature. All of us are born equal, and our birth is itself a huge lottery, considering the billions of sperms that won’t succeed, in creating a life.
    Man and Woman are both human and just as there are physical differences, between sexes, there are also emotional variations. You can’t stereotype a man or a woman. Both men and women enjoy and suffer from similar thoughts and life situations. The best way forwards is to accommodate one another and get the best out of any situation. The most important aspect of living is to lead life for disadvantaged. All of us are disadvantaged in one way or other, and all of us have got something best to offer, to all those around us. Life is not enough for us to interact with all other human beings. It will be great if we can treat all those with whom we get in touch with as our own. All of us own this entire universe, and if physicists are correct each and every one can own a galaxy. How can we be responsible owners of a galaxy when we can’t get on with others who own galaxies of their own.

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  67. 67. denisosu 7:18 pm 04/3/2013

    Nice article, Melanie. I have one comment/question. I’m curious about your opinion.

    I spent time working/studying in two countries with very different attitudes towards male/female relationships and interactions in work/college.
    One extreme was the US, where there are so many rules and regulations about how a man may interact with or talk to a woman – the result is an efficent but quite dull work-environment.
    The other country was Italy, where it is almost rude not to compliment each other (men to women, women to men, women to women and sometimes even men to men) on a daily basis. Even mild flirting is common – not just with young or beautiful people, but with everyone. The workplace is alive, friendly and vibrant.
    [to be clear - there is a lot of sexism in Italy which borders on harrassment - I am not defending this at all, but that is not what we had in the office - and at the same time, I see how the two attitudes are correlated ...]

    My Italian colleagues (male and female) didn’t enjoy the staidness in the US office – my US colleagues loved visiting the Italian office and getting frequent compliments – not just for their appearance.

    My question:

    There is an ideal world, in which people can treat each other as men and women, not as robots, but never let this impact their professional respect for each other, and never create a situation in which anyone feels threatened or uncomfortable. But how is it possible to create such an environment without risking either the blandness of the typical US office, or the “benevolent sexist discrimination” which goes too far and does impact how we view professional competence?

    The easy answer is to say “impossible” and default to the position that any comment at all is inappropriate, but I think we can to better, and make everyone happier in the process.

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  68. 68. SooziHL 5:29 am 04/4/2013

    This is an excellent article and I found the bit about the obituary of Yvonne Brill truly shocking. As a mother and career/business woman I feel that I’m up against benevolent sexism all the time, although until now I’d never been able to label it.

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  69. 69. Diogenes11 11:52 am 04/4/2013

    “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said. – sexist, or familyist?
    Is it simply that to a child, his mother’s role as his mother was far more important than whether she was famous for something he couldn’t understand or even had a building named after her? I don’t think little John Kennedy saluting at his father’s funeral understood his father’s masterly realpolitik of the Cuban missile crisis.

    Perhaps every female who has not served in the armed forces is a benevolent sexist, allowing an army of disproportionately poor men, black men, but numerically almost all men, to fight and die for their country. Every woman who has eaten a loaf of bread or turned on a light switch, while far more men are injured and killed in dangerous farming or mining jobs, is a benevolent sexist.

    Every woman who has asked a man to open a jar or lift a heavy object – yep, BS to the core. Not to mention women’s singles tennis, or ‘mixed doubles’ where one place is reserved for a woman, excluding men who may be better players. Anyone for sexistless Wimbledon, best of 5 sets, pooled men’s and women’s prizemoney, no BS, just seeding on ability?

    Businesses will delight in a world without maternity leave – given that pregnancy and birth is certainly not a sickness, no time off work would be allowed. It would be BS to allow women to have time off for a gender-specific act such as childbirth. Come into labour on the bus? No-one’s going to offer assistance, as that would clearly constitute BS.

    And perhaps that gets to the root cause of BS – nature is sexist.

    Women cannot drink as much alcohol as men – going one-for-one shots gets women drunk quicker. And, nearly 100% of rapists are men. Even female criminals generally avoid overpowering and taking sexual advantage of drunk men. Logical corollary – I warn my daughter more strongly about the risks of date rape, and my son more strongly about the risks of drink-driving, as far more young men die in car crashes than women.

    Women get hurt more if they compete non-sexistly. Playing tennis against men, or in mixed boxercise classes, women are more commonly injured. Million Dollar Baby would have been a much shorter and less poignant movie had Hilary Swank faced up to Mike Tyson in round one. (And of course, no BS Best Actress Oscar for Hilary, unless she beat the male contenders in an unsexed Best Actor category).

    I am sure my son would physically defend my daughter from a rapist, for the same reason a male lion would do the same for his sister – genetic hardwiring. Just as the lionesses stand back while the males fight in the David Attenborough documentaries, I’m sure my daughter would stand back (and call the police, or ask another BS male to help her brother).

    The passengers on the bus? Watch the elephant herd protect the mother in labour, and then the newborn calf. BS? The strong protect the weak – it’s what us mammals do.

    The problem arises where the modern alpha male does not need to chase the bear from the cave, before his physically weaker mate can enter the workplace. He does not even need his testosterone-enhanced upper-body strength to open the automatic door. He has a constitutional right to put a gun in his hand but a palaeolithic brain which reacts violently to fear or hostility (ever wondered why nearly all the shooters are male, when guns give a non-sexist equality of massacre?).

    The male who compliments you on your looks has assessed your facial symmetry, and your lack of obvious diseases makes you breeding material. Your ability to cook is a great asset to the tribe, as the parasites in the mammoth drumsticks need killing, while preserving the nutritional value of the meat. He has puffed out his chest, sucked in his gut, risen to his full height, and is moving nearer towards you than the other males in the room. His gaze is on you, but his eyes flick around and will immediately track another male who looks threatening, or a prettier female.

    He hasn’t a clue about his genes. He probably needs 50,000 years to catch up to your ideals. But, do you really want him to glance dispassionately as you come into labour on the bus, and step over you calmly on his way to work at the Federal Antibenevolence Commission? Kitty Genovese might have wanted some BS benevolence.

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  70. 70. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 12:09 pm 04/4/2013


    Too much here to respond. I recommend reading my follow-up post, if you haven’t already:

    A few specific things to note:

    1. Lots of straw man arguments here, especially since I specifically mention (several times) that my ideal world would not get rid of maternity leave, but would offer comprehensive paternity leave benefits as well, and also make it less stigmatizing for men to take a more active role in family life & child raising. In fact, this is the way it is in many countries in the world, like Sweden. It’s a good thing.

    2. Saying that “pregnancy and birth is certainly not a sickness” is a straw man argument. I never once came close to saying that. That is something that you just pulled out of thin air. If someone had a heart attack on the bus, I would hope people would offer assistance. If someone goes into labor on the bus, no one would ever argue that that isn’t something that needs medical attention, especially since until fairly recently in human evolutionary history, child birth was the single most dangerous thing anyone could ever do. No one would ever argue that you shouldn’t help someone who needs medical assistance. Do you think I ever once came close to arguing that we shouldn’t bother finding cures for breast cancer and testicular cancer because SEXISM? Grow up, please.

    3. In my follow-up post, which you clearly have not read, I address several of the things that you argue about here. Again, I encourage you to read things through thoroughly before taking time to draft up such lengthy responses. I clearly acknowledge that it is not sexist to acknowledge that men are generally stronger than women. It is sexist to rigidly over-apply those stereotypes to individual people or situations. I also acknowledge that the issue here is not as much about individual responses as it is about a culture. So no, I clearly would not call the fact that a child’s commentary about his/her parent largely revolves around his/her role as a parent to be sexist. What I do call “sexist” is the larger cultural tendency to seek out commentary on familial roles for women, and to ignore that commentary for men.

    To conclude:

    I’ve addressed pretty much everything you complain about already — in a much more reasoned and patient manner than your response, mind you. Again, here is the link:

    Straw man arguments are a pretty good sign that you don’t have something substantial to contribute to a discussion.

    I encourage you to learn how to objectively evaluate arguments without introducing straw men and getting angry at things that the writer never actually said. I have faith that you might be able to engage with what I have written and critically evaluate the world around you in a meaningful way if you could just be rational and try not to take everything so personally.

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  71. 71. gcwebber 3:12 pm 04/4/2013

    I am so glad you wrote this article! I have been talking about something similar for a long time. My female friends say there’s “nothing wrong” with a man “doing something nice for a woman” – such as holding open a door, pulling back your chair at a restaurant or carrying a heavy bag. I say it’s sexist if they only do it for women.

    I’m female and used to work in a busy office building where there was a heavy security door leading outside. During lunch, there would often be a little bit of a traffic jam at the door as people poured into the lobby to leave the building. I can’t tell you how many times I got to the door first and went to hold it open for the people coming after me, only to be argued with by men who would not go through the door if I were holding it open. “No, after you.” “No, go ahead, I don’t mind.” “NO. After you.” “Seriously dude, I have it. It’s OK.” They’d frown and look cross until I let them hold the door for themselves. This happened probably twice a week.

    Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s sexist to do something nice for somebody, like not slamming a door in their face or helping them carry something unwieldy. I think it’s sexist if you are compelled to help only women.

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  72. 72. Katatonic 6:14 pm 04/4/2013

    Informative article but quite appalling to realize how much I engage in Benevolent Sexism both towards myself and women in general. And I thought I was one of the self-aware, enlightened ones.

    I work in a non-traditional job (phone network tech) and have regularly encountered sexism from customers and co-workers. From customers it’s not surprising-they expect a man to arrive at their door, climb the pole and/or dig the trench, and repair/install their services. The worst sexism comes from women, especially young women, and it was frequently openly hostile. The BS was more likely to come from male customers. The BS I could understand and ignore (right or wrong, I don’t attribute meanness where simple admiration can suffice), the hostility from other women, not so much.

    Here is where the insidiousness creeps in for me: I pride myself on working solo much of the time, rarely asking for help unless it requires tools/equipment I don’t have/am not certified to operate. But once my male co-worker arrives on the site, I’m more than happy to let them do the heavy lifting, so to speak. Not sure if that’s more BS from me or just sheer laziness. *cringe* But the reality is they are better at some things than I am and of course, the converse holds as well.

    While raising my daughter, I always strove to keep my praise aimed at her accomplishments and efforts regardless of outcome. Martial arts training helped both of us make this change. The sensei didn’t give a rap who was screwing up-the whole class did push ups, young/old, fat/thin, male/female, strong/weak, whatever. Ditto for individual transgressions. This may have been my first real exposure to non-sexist treatment in a purely physical arena and it was refreshing, to say the least.

    Thank you for posting this. There’s been a lot of discussion around sexism/feminism in the atheist/humanist community of late and it’s great to have this to refer to.

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  73. 73. Nowhere Man 7:36 am 04/5/2013

    jh443, a common theme of ancient Greek comedies was to have a master who was so bumbling and inept that “even a lowly slave” (irony intended) had to bail him out. So, too, I think you’ll find that on many TV sitcoms, there may be one main male character who is so bumbling and inept that “even a lowly female” (irony intended) has to bail him out. On most such shows, you’ll find other male characters who aren’t nearly as inept.

    The bumbling character is funny because he *isn’t* representative of his dominant class — at least, not representative of the *stereotype* of his dominant class.

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  74. 74. lgordon 5:08 pm 04/5/2013

    This is an excellent article. Thank you for writing it. How ironic that within a couple of days of this post, the President of the U.S. has done exactly what you describe.
    Disappointing, but it illustrates the need to have these kinds of conversations, and the need to educate everyone about the unthinking, “accidental,” but insidious slights we perpetrate.

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  75. 75. Diogenes11 12:51 pm 04/6/2013

    ” This is my space, which I am allowed to moderate as I see fit. It is not a free-for-all, public forum. My blog, my rules. You are free to be rude elsewhere, but not in my space.” Post 35

    Dear Ms Tannenbaum, my post was not specifically directed at you (and not intentionally rude), but in response to all the above material. My use of the personal pronoun ‘you’ was because it sounds sadly stilted in English to use the more correct, impersonal ‘one’. As my posting name suggests, I lack deference to great leaders and authority figures, and reply in abstruse fashion. It was not my intention to create a strawman, as you were accused of in post 14, nor even a reductio ad absurdum, but to point to the logical corollaries of disparaging benevolence, even sexist benevolence. I attempted much the same jocular tone as your Einstein obituary, where an apparently humorous line reveals a more serious intent.

    My tone was not angry as you infer, but that is the problem for modern ‘conversations’ without direct contact. I also pre-date the internet, so am not au fait with hyperlinks.

    “If it reinforces existing stereotypes that men are stronger, smarter, more violent, etc. and women are weaker, domestic, better nurturers, etc. – it might be sexist.” post 17. In a recent well publicised case in Melbourne, a young woman left a bar in the early hours of the morning for the short walk home. Jill Meagher was raped and murdered. As the investigation progressed, her friends (of both sexes) told of how they had offered to escort her home, or call a taxi, but she refused their offers. I understand from your original post that you (and many other posters) consider it benevolent sexism to offer such physical aid to a woman, if one would not offer it to a man. Yet as a parent, and a responsible citizen, such benevolence is what I want for my daughter, even if her feminist pride clouds her ability to perceive the criminal risk.

    “There’s no reason to think men or women won’t do just as well as their counterparts in whatever role they choose, regardless of physiology.” Post 32. Yet rape/ murder/ terrorism remain almost uniquely male across cultural boundaries, indicating biological gender differences. Patty Hearst was notable as a rich female terrorist, in a role usually filled by poor men.
    “I think the real problem was that the comments were often tied to her physical appearance or other “icky” things like calling her “bangable,” which is just unprofessional and weird. And something you would not typically see being said to a man.” Your post 50. But given that my (hostilely sexist against men) assertion is that almost all sexual predators are male, this is not “weird”, but self evident. Pope Francis will not need to spend much time on cases of boys, girls, women and men sexually abused by nuns.

    “BTW, not sure what is the ultimate goal of people like author – joined sports leagues where men and women play hockey together; Olympic games where both men and women compete for single medal (in boxing for example) and unisex restrooms?” Post 23.
    Three sets, not five, and never having to face Federer, Nadal, Murray, for the same prizemoney as the men – women’s tennis is BS by your definition. But would the world be better if no woman ever stood a chance (other than target shooting or synchronized swimming) because sports sexism was abolished? Abolition of benevolent sexism in sport may not be your “ultimate goal”, but it is a logical corollary.

    If I see a heavily pregnant woman struggling with a heavy load, I feel an urge to help (I do not feel the same urge to help a younger and stronger man than I, as this would clearly be futile). I believe some of this is mammalian hardwiring, but some also cultural. Yet as an employer under Australian law, if I see my heavily pregnant staffmember struggling with a heavy load, it is illegal for me to lighten it, either literally or metaphorically. The baby of benevolent sexism has been thrown out with the bathwater of malevolent sexism.

    I have worked in India, and stepped with my fellow travellers over beggars and lepers on the platform to get to my train. The recent case of the student raped and killed on an Indian bus saddened but did not surprise me – a culture without a tradition of benevolence towards women, with indifference to everyday suffering, allows malevolence to flourish. “No one would ever argue that you shouldn’t help someone who needs medical assistance.” Your post 70. The busdriver had to choose between driving to the police station/hospital, or stopping his bus and participating in the crime. His actions disprove your sincere belief.

    Kitty Genovese died because dozens of her fellow New Yorkers were indifferent rather than benevolent, and only one man was malevolent. Jill Meagher died because the benevolence of several friends was rejected, and again, there was a single malevolent man.

    Your satirical line “like the belief that women are “delicate flowers” who need to be protected by men” is close to my feeling, that women often need to be protected FROM men. Although your second post credits culture over biology, when it comes to violence against women, in all cultures the main perpetrators are men.

    I’ve been violently mugged and robbed, (I’ll let you infer the gender of the 2 perpetrators) and it hurts more physically and psychologically than some name-calling. Mercifully, being an older male, I was not sexually assaulted, only physically and financially. It was in broad daylight, and none of the bystanders offered any benevolence. I do not believe that this world needs more equanimity or indifference.

    Your initial post caused one grandfather to have concern over whether to compliment his granddaughters. Scientific American reaches the thoughtful and introspective readership, rather than the violent street criminals, so decreasing benevolent sexism will not decrease sexist malevolence. When my daughter works late, I don’t want her employer to feel sexist in offering her a cabfare home, and I don’t want my daughter to feel obliged to refuse a cabfare if her young, fit, male colleagues refuse and say they are happy to walk.

    As you put it in your second post: “All I am saying is that it might be worth giving some thought to the implications underlying the everyday things that we say.”

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  76. 76. noelk 1:10 pm 04/6/2013

    I’m sure this is a problem in some forms, but the two ones you presented don’t seem like sexism. I’m sure if you asked Yvonne, she would have been just as proud as being such a great, dedicated mom as she was a rocket scientist. If Albert Einstein had taken 8 years off of work to raise his kids, and was an excellent cook to boot, I bet you anything that this would have been worth mentioning in his obituary. The fact that she was able to straddle both of these worlds is AWESOME, for a HUMAN, not just a woman.

    Secondly, as a woman, I have done my fair-share of cat-calling nerdy smart guys who are also attractive. Nate Silver comes to mind… have you seen the comments he gets? I think the double-standard is broken here and thus comments like this aren’t necessarily sexist. BUT, if it’s wrong, what do we then characterize it as?

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  77. 77. niki-85 1:38 pm 04/6/2013

    @ 29. larkalt, ironically what you are talking about isn’t sexism at all but does display a difference which has been observed between the sexes. I studied gender and language at A-level which introduced us to great nuggets of information such as there are 250 derogatory terms for women which are sexual, but only around 12 for men (most of which are more complimentary than derogatory).
    There was a study which observed language patterns, one of which was women speaking to women, men speaking to men, as well as mixed groups. One of the observations found was that when men spoke to other men they would often interrupt each other or talk over each other, but this would not offend them as it was a common culture within that gender group. Women on the other hand would turn-take a lot more and express more value towards what each other were saying and interrupting was seen as rude in all-female groups. In the mixed groups it was found that the men would still interrupt the women in the same way but the women would take offence as in their culture it is perceived as rude.
    It was very useful for me to know this as I now work in a predominantly male group and quite often I have HAD to interrupt to get my point across (particularly if it is after someone has interrupted me), however this doesn’t mean that women should always automatically accept and adjust to a man’s style of speaking. We should recognise the different cultures that exist within our gender groups and have understanding and try to adjust to each other’s style. Maybe if this happens a lot the cultures will merge more and some of the differences will be removed.

    @ 31. jtdwyer, I also agree with you about some differences being real, men are often stronger and sometimes it is better to accept this as the norm whilst not allowing it to define anything someone can or can’t do. I used to do Kung Fu and I remember another woman who did not want to accept that just because she was 5ft-nothing and petite that she was in any way weaker than the men, she would ask them to punch full force because she “could take it”. This was stupidly naive as a lot of the men with full power could do a LOT of damage (remember these guys are stronger than the average man as well due to their discipline). However kung fu taught us to use our strengths and be aware of our weaknesses and we were taught ways of fighting against someone stronger than us. For a start being stronger means someone can be less flexible and it is much easier often to put a joint lock on a man to immobilise them and women in general being smaller are much faster. It is much better to accept and adjust for differences than thinking you are superman and putting yourself in danger. I loved doing martial arts as it made me appreciate the unique differences between individuals and gender and how each of these could make people unique and exceptional fighters! We did of course though have small men and big strong women but they were the exception. On the other hand I’m only 5ft 3″ but I was always surprised by the guys who frequently told me (in an impressed/surprised voice) that I was a very strong woman and had hard punches, and also many underestimated my reach with kicks and ended up being kicked in the head which I always found quite entertaining. Underestimate others to your peril!!

    Where assumptions go wrong with gender is restricting someone based on their gender. I was brought up and my mother was desperate for me to be girly, the ballet classes and dolls were enforced (I wanted to do karate and have toy cars) and my brother was given roller blade and skateboards when I was told I wasn’t allowed them. I spent a large part of my childhood wishing I was a boy, but I just think my mother didn’t understand (as she is very typically girly). However she did bring me up with a great sense of my own self worth and intelligence (encouraged my interest in science) and made me very aware of feminism so I am grateful for that. She still worries now about me doing kung fu though! I will be very careful with my if I have children not to impose these restrictions.

    A final note, my Grandma is shocked and very impressed that my boyfriend is the one who cooks in our house, but she has told me off and said I should help him cook more to which I reply that he kicks me out of the kitchen!

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  78. 78. claud334 2:49 pm 04/6/2013

    Thank you for a fantastic article explaining a phenomenon that I have experienced but could not articulate. As a woman in tech, I encounter these kind of harmful and hurtful comments regularly.

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  79. 79. ElizabethD22 12:48 am 04/9/2013

    THANK YOU. I now understand why it felt so awkward to me when the female Olympic athletes were consistently and repeatedly commentated on with remarks on how many children they had at home. Few of my friends understood why I was upset about this. It wouldn’t have mattered, except I remember none of the male athletes being introduced in this way. It was almost like the commentators were saying, “Yeah, we know she can dive and all, but the REALLY important thing in her life is she has two kids at home!”

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  80. 80. DrRoss 3:35 am 04/9/2013

    A few points: A benevolent/hostile gradient depends on how intolerant/tolerant society as a whole is towards hostility, ie: hostile sexism is repressed in societies less tolerant of it, while “benevolent” behaviors pass.
    What could be construed as B. S. (benev etc.), a grey area as it were, is the male’s constant efforts to win any potential mate’s attention with all kinds of acts and words which will cease some time after the last pyramid has eroded into dust.
    Finally, the question instantly came to mind: why no mention of the non-sexist societies (do they even exist, and if not wouldn’t this skew any research results?) and how would their success (longevity etc.) fit into the claim that benevolent sexist societies bear these percs for males? Compared to what?

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  81. 81. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 12:38 pm 04/9/2013

    Hi DrRoss,

    These are good points. Generally, they tend to be correlated, so societies that are more tolerant of hostility also tend to endorse benevolently sexist viewpoints. However, benevolent statements can also be a way to “safely” endorse sexism in cultures where hostility is not socially sanctioned.

    I don’t know if there is any society that is “perfect.” As I’ve tried to note (hopefully successfully!) it is not about being “perfect” or “sexism-less,” but about engaging in a constant learning process to try and understand our words and behaviors a little better. That said, Sweden and the Netherlands tend to do incredibly well on gender equality issues. According to Glick and Fiske, the more a country endorses the beliefs, the wider the gap is — which speaks to the idea that they are related. As in, in countries that endorse them to a lesser degree, the difference between men and women is smaller. So it’s not about a two-group comparison (sexist vs. not sexist), but a regression using a continuous variable, where you can tell that for every “increase” in sexism, you see a significant “increase” in the discrepancy. Does this make sense?

    Thank you for reading and responding!

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  82. 82. DrRoss 4:04 pm 04/9/2013

    Yes, if gap = discrepancy = inequality, and beliefs = sexism.
    On another extreme, societies where females were traditionally kept unlettered but now are struggling to become increasingly literate the quality of life improves for both genders.

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  83. 83. Calaquen 7:04 pm 04/9/2013

    I haven’t read through all eighty two comments posted on here, so this might have been mentioned already. The comments Elise Andrew got that you shared examples of can actually be broken up into two stereotypes. I will agree that the “you’re a woman/girl/not-a-guy” comments are sexist. The “you are attractive” comments I wouldn’t see as necessarily being sexist because there is also the stereotype that the only people who like science are geeks/nerds/dorks, and all of those people are over-weight, unattractive, unhygienic (and so on).

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  84. 84. tickleme 9:48 pm 04/13/2013

    I’m sorrrrry the ideas behind this article are BS. It is unusual to find males or females in some occupations and to comment on that is not ‘Sexist’, which is ‘PC’ which I do despise as it being a tool, a very effective tool for our loss of our actual physical and mental emotional freedoms in this country! When I go into an Auto Parts Store and see a women behind the counter since that is fairly unusual occurrence being in a ‘Man’s World’ I assume since Women have to work twice as hard to be thought half as good I naturally assume that ‘she knows her car parts! Although I have been disappointed lately and to tell the truth with the male members behind the counter as well! Although these were ‘young people’ so maybe it’s more ‘time and experience’ that counts as in most jobs. ‘Attacking’ the person here? NO ‘Attacking the idea of ‘Benevolent Sexisim’. If we are ‘different’ on the ‘outside’ you can be darn sure that we are different on the ‘inside’, physically, emotionally, mentally! We were ‘built’ for ‘different jobs’ and that is reflected in our ‘construction’. To ignore it or to ‘downgrade it’ or to ‘belittle it’ is to ‘Disrespect’ the person and the ‘gender’, closing your eyes to millions of years of evolution that has ‘worked’ for our ‘survival as a species’ and the ‘PC’ Crowd wants to ‘Monkey With That?!’. Not on MY Watch! IMHO!!!

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  85. 85. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 10:14 pm 04/13/2013

    Whoa. This is…interesting.

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  86. 86. syzygyygyzys 12:25 am 04/14/2013

    Archie Bunker lives!! That is interesting.

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  87. 87. LydiaM 7:11 pm 05/5/2013

    Very interesting read, Melanie. I studied both sociology and psychology during my undergrad years (I plan on continuing in the psych track for my graduate education as well) and a great deal of the research that I studied concerned privilege and discrimination. I have read other articles that expressed similar ideas reflected in this article, but few were as well formulated. I have noted the sexism in the sorts of behaviors you discussed in this article, but when put to pressure, I had a difficult time explaining it clearly and was written off as being wrong. I applaud you for writing this, and other articles like it. It helps me articulate things that I would otherwise have some trouble expressing. .

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  88. 88. svendlarose 5:20 am 06/11/2014

    Women and men are not interchangeable. Women’s careers are not a substitute for their childrearing. Men’s childrearing help is not a substitute for their careers. The gendered division of labour evolved because it works wonders for the survival of the human species. The non-gendered distribution of labour in today’s paradigm is pushing birth rates down to lowest lows, to where Europe is set to die off because of its gender equality.

    Gender equality is gender inequitable. That’s the viewpoint of complementarian feminists, like me, who agree with some of what might be called “benevolent sexism” by gender feminists. Gender equity requires equal value for both the male and the female half of the family economic equation – the man who produces and the wife who leads the family in consuming wisely to make things last. Gender equity requires equal value for the man who earns the kids’ activities fees and the woman who drives the kids to them and cheers them on. I like to think we were near that in America in the late 90s when soccer moms elected Clinton. I like to think we can be back there once again.

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  89. 89. TimAttwell 4:04 am 12/8/2014

    I loved the reworked obit of Albert Einstein. I also totally get the dangers of “benevolent sexism”: insidious stereotyping, reinforcement of limiting gender roles and all. Thank you. But back to Einstein’s reworked obit. That it appears “odd” to include references to the great man’s Dad role is an almost universal form of gender stereotyping, only of men. It’s time the qualities of men as caregivers, lovers, healthy people and what have you gets the same exposure those qualities get in writing about women. Maybe that would help men to revision themselves in more wholistic ways – a long overdue trend that still has to happen.

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  90. 90. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 1:00 am 12/9/2014

    You *did* read the entire paragraph in the article where I say we should be just as willing to give men credit for their roles as fathers and husbands, right?

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  92. 92. BenevolentMisandrist 3:35 pm 03/3/2015

    Is there a way ,for those who are economically less fortunate, to read the Becker and Wright article without paying the 11.00$ ?

    I wondered if its more likely for women to fight against hostile sexism but not benevolent- because many women just aren’t threatened/ even appreciate or enjoy some gender-specific benevolence in their interactions with men-folk. I’d really like to look at the studies to consider the phenomenon in context.
    The pregnancy example was interesting. I personally see no problem with the assumption that women are more inclined to take on early childcare roles. What I have a problem with is that that inclination is used to keep us economically disadvantaged. Biologically we may not be the impossibly broad description of: “better at caregiving” but we *are* better at gestating and breastfeeding so it makes sense to support and accomodate that if youre not a member of the pregnancy/nursing capable sex. Is that “benevolent sexism”? Couldn’t it just be benevolent to think “new mothers are more suited to feeding their nursing offspring than new fathers” without allowing this biological difference to justify kicking her out of work? Instead make gainful employment accessible to both sets of reproductive anatomies and allow women to nurse their babies at the office without taking a pay cut.

    The benevolent attitudes about women are okay in my opinion. Its when theyre used to justify non-belevolent actions thats problematic. Its okay for men to think Im special and want to protect me because Im a woman. Its not okay for them to keep me from becoming a firefighter because they think im special and want to protect me. Dig?

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  93. 93. BenevolentMisandrist 3:43 pm 03/3/2015

    I dont think there was anything wrong with the obit. Einstein’s could have easily had the shocking twist at the end that he too had broken a gender mold and was highly involved father and sensitive lover to his wife or whathave you.

    Those are both surprising twist because women are still under represented in certain fields and men are woefully disconnected from their children/families. Commentary that expresses such twists are celebratory and intended to be antisexist — to point out that the world we live in is sexist and still so divided but there are these wonderful few who are breaking the mold.

    The obit wasnt sexist. the world the obit was written in- is.

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  95. 95. Mziubinsk 11:22 pm 03/16/2015

    I don’t think benevolent sexism is necessarily a bad thing. As a man, I will not hit a woman. It may be sexist, but I’m ok with it.

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