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Benevolent Sexism: An Addendum.

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

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When you’re a woman who writes an article online about sexism, it’s incredibly easy for people who want to dismiss your argument to write you off as some kind of bitter, angry, screeching man-hater.

I’ve naturally received a lot of comments on this piece, as I absolutely knew going into this that I would. The comments have been both critical of and thankful for the article, and I’m truly grateful that I’ve received far more of the latter — anything involving prejudice is going to be a sensitive issue for a large amount of people, and I’m always happy to know that I’ve managed to make more people feel validated or affirmed than marginalized or offended. Of the critical feedback that I have received, I have been pleased to find that a good amount of it has contained thoughtful questions and valid concerns. I have been especially pleased by comments from those who have not thought about these issues before, who are now engaging with the subject matter and asking genuine questions about how to construe their own actions. As a writer and a science communicator, that is incredibly affirming. It is always good to know that one is not simply “preaching to the choir.”

I initially wanted to respond to every single comment. However, as there are over 40 and counting, this seems like it will be quite a difficult undertaking. Therefore, I’ve decided to write this follow-up post as a handy FAQ-style explainer addressing some of the common critiques, complaints, or comments that I have encountered.

Men can be the victims of this too/Women can be sexist towards men:

Yes. I agree. You are absolutely right.

Is there a lot of research on benevolent stereotypes impacting men? No, there’s not. That’s why I can’t really talk about it proficiently — the research is not really there, at least not to my knowledge. Is this a flaw in the literature, and an interesting empirical research question worth addressing? ABSOLUTELY! I completely agree with commenters here and on Twitter who pointed out that “benevolent sexism” can also come in the form of stereotypes about traditional masculinity. Seemingly benevolent stereotypes portraying men as strong or stoic make it incredibly difficult for men to openly express emotions, cry in public, or pursue gender-atypical careers (e.g., nursing, nannying, dancing, being a stay-at-home father). There is an additional wrinkle on this side of things, which is the fact that often times, men who defy traditional gender roles are not only derogated, they are often referred to as “gay.” This is not only problematic for men, but it’s INCREDIBLY problematic for the entire LGBT community, which suffers any time terms associated with homosexuality are intended to be insulting or demeaning. Very bad all around.

There’s a lot here. Very ripe for interesting research questions. Unfortunately, not much has been done on it. A problem? Definitely. A valid point that you have raised? Yes. But I must now defend myself by saying that it’s not entirely my fault. I’m in the business of communicating peer-reviewed academic research. If the research doesn’t exist, I can’t just decide to provide my own data in the form of anecdotes and speculation. But I do agree with several of you wholeheartedly that there is something there.

In fact, I did consciously try very hard to specifically note several points within the article where benevolent sexism, even directed at women, could still have a negative impact on men. I encourage you to read back over the piece and note where I point out that it’s incredibly hurtful for men who are truly good husbands and fathers to have those roles underplayed in descriptions of their lives, and it’s a sign of a truly unequal society if a man faces criticism for wanting to devote time to his family life and/or stay at home with a child, either temporarily or permanently. Note that I explicitly say in the article that the problem is not in calling attention to Brill’s personal life. The problem is that it was done for her, while it likely would not have been done if she were male. The implication, given the nature of this piece, is that this is something anti-woman, but it should be noted that this is also quite negative for men. Several have noted that Einstein in particular is not a good comparison point, but I would encourage you to think of how likely it is for you to see something like that written about any man.

Finally, to address a couple of specific comments (on something that I think is very interesting, and something I might have to write about in more detail in the future!), I have alluded in prior posts (albeit not in very much detail) to the fact that the one TV/movie/sitcom trope that drives me absolutely up-the-wall BONKERS is the “bumbling, idiot husband who can’t do anything right” stereotype. See Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens, etc. I hate it. I think it’s a terrible, one-dimensional, lazy writing gimmick. It’s stupid, it’s offensive, and it doesn’t look like any of the men I know and respect tremendously. So don’t worry. Those of you who mentioned that as offensive, I’m fully with you on that one.

Alright, next?

Biology!/Reproductive Fitness!/Men like looks, women like money!/EVOLUTION!

Oh boy. You likely don’t want to get me going down the rabbit hole on this one.

Chances are, if you’re arguing biological essentialism, we are probably never going to see eye to eye. But I will try and give a brief overview of why this is problematic — in case there are any bystanders reading this who might simply be curious as to whether or not this argument holds any water.

To understand why it doesn’t, I recommend reading this article from the New York Times for an elegant rundown of some issues with evolutionary perspectives on mating, written by Dan Slater and citing the incredible work of several prominent social psychologists, including Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick. No one is arguing that evolution isn’t important, or that the biological side of things doesn’t matter. But because of a combination of several factors — including the important fact that people are sometimes unfairly biased towards preferring biological explanations for phenomena even when other, better explanations might exist — the role of these factors gets severely overstated.

Basically, it comes down to two things:

  • Biology is often confounded by strong cultural differences. Yes, women and men often differ when it comes to sexual behavior and mating patterns, but they also differ in a lot of other ways — including their level of access to important resources. Research that attempts to disentangle biology from culture (as best it can be disentangled) reveals that a lot of the gender differences that have been so widely noted in mating and attraction behavior can actually be explained by cultural differences. Once you control for things like power, money, and resources, sex differences go away. Which shouldn’t happen if it’s really attributable to “just biology.”
  • When you run better studies that are more methodologically sound and control for problems found in earlier research, sex differences go away. For example, as cited in the Times article above, some studies claim that men have more sexual partners than women, and that they also report a desire for more partners, as justification for the idea that men are more biologically driven to “spread their seed.” Yet when you hook participants up to a fake “lie detector” so they think they have to tell the truth, those differences suddenly go away. It’s not that women actually have or want fewer partners, it’s that they know they shouldn’t admit it. If they think they can’t lie, they suddenly don’t look so different from the men.

Alright. Next.

Something about my bio/picture/credentials!

Just stop. You’re embarrassing yourself. If the only argument you can make against my article has to do with me personally, then you’ve already lost. It’s a sign that you don’t actually have something substantial to contribute.

Is this unique to sexism?

No. This is commonly studied within sexism, but the hostile vs. benevolent distinction can be (and has been) applied to all types of prejudice.

I think that sometimes, people have unique responses to sexism that make it difficult to see a larger point, but put in a different context it becomes more apparent why certain things are problematic.

For example, imagine if Elise were of a different race, and the comments under her picture looked something like… “Whoa! Not only are you interested in science, but you’re surprisingly articulate! I just got more interested in science today!”

WOW. SUPER NOT OKAY, RIGHT? We can see how that is INCREDIBLY offensive? And how many of the commenters who wrote the original remarks on Elise’s status would NEVER write something like what I just did above?

So, that’s an example of how something that “sounds positive” can actually be incredibly offensive. There are also examples of concrete benevolent stereotypes that cause problems within racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.

To name a few — African-Americans are not all naturally athletic. Not all Asians are good at math and science. All Jewish people are not rich and powerful. All gay men are not all fashion-savvy and awesome shopping buddies. All lesbians will not be able to deftly remodel your home.

I note those stereotypes not to endorse them (obviously), but to point out that we are all largely familiar with them. Technically, stereotypes are simply schemas (or knowledge structures) about large groups of people. When stereotypes become dangerous is when they are rigidly over-applied, or when they are assumed to be “harmless” because they seem objectively positive. When you rely on stereotypes and automatic judgments to dictate how you respond in any one particular situation (or to any one particular person), that’s when it’s a big problem.

As an example, it is not offensive to acknowledge that men, on average, are stronger than women. It is offensive, when faced with a woman who has really toned arms, to say, “Whoa! How did you get arms like that?” and then, if she says by lifting weights, to make a comment about how women don’t do that. You’re rigidly over-applying your stereotype there. You are faced with a woman who is quite possibly stronger than most men she knows. It’s OK that on average men are stronger than women, but in this case, for this one particular woman, that might not be true. So this is when it’s time to ditch the stereotype. Don’t cling to it. It won’t help you anymore.

Research supports the fact that positive stereotypes can be harmful across all types of prejudice. Positive stereotypes about performance ability might make people more likely to “choke under pressure,” there are psychological threats involved in being a “model minority,” and seemingly positive stereotypes about one group can have negative consequences for another. “Positive” stereotypes about Caucasian and African-American groups involving academics and athletic ability can each impact the other group negatively; when a test is framed as an intellectual diagnostic task, Black participants underperform, but when the same test is framed as a test of athletic ability, White participants underperform. Finally, as a commenter pointed out, African-American athletes might be more likely to be praised as “physically gifted,” whereas White athletes might be more likely to be praised as “hard workers,” due to different racialized perceptions of “natural ability.” This might not seem like a huge deal, until you consider research showing that praising the effort someone puts in is tremendously more beneficial and intrinsically motivating than praising someone for being innately good at something.

As a thought experiment, I invite you to try identifying any identity that you might be sensitive about or derive a lot of your personal identity from – it can be a racial, gender, or religious identity, or it can be something not typically addressed in a lot of this literature, like a medical or mental health diagnosis, a hobby, a school affiliation, a state that you are from, etc. Try identifying one potential “benevolent” stereotype associated with that identity, and one potential negative one. Then try imagining what some of these examples I have brought up today and yesterday might look like if they referred to that identity. You might still feel the same way, but I am willing to bet that you might reconsider some of the comments that initially seem innocuous once you realize what they sound like if applied to you.

For myself, I tend to try substituting in “Jewish.” For situations like what happened with Elise, I imagine how I would feel if someone commented, “You’re a Jew and you’re not a banker or running Hollywood?! So cool!”

It doesn’t feel great.

I would love it if my obit looked like that/I’d love for people to call me bangable all the time!

Great. That’s your call. You’re certainly allowed to feel that way. But although I have no idea how Brill would feel about her obit, I can tell you that from what we’ve seen, Elise was very much not pleased with the response that she got. Which means it’s not OK for people to tell her that she should just change how she feels because she’s being too sensitive or reading too much into things. Guess what? If you say something and you make someone feel seriously uncomfortable, it’s now on you to give serious consideration to why that person might feel that way. That’s how empathy and being a nice human being works.

And here’s the thing, which transitions very well into my next point…

So is EVERY compliment sexist?!/Can I say ANYTHING nice without being sexist now?!/You ruin stuff for everyone by saying that anything nice I do is sexist!

No. Compliments are not sexist. Guess what? I like being told that I’m attractive. I think it’s polite when people hold the door open for me. Sometimes my boyfriend pays for dinner. (And yes, there is a man who has chosen to live with me for the past 2 years — sorry, those of you who are convinced I’m sad, bitter, and alone).

I would like for everyone reading this to understand two really big, important things:


Someone brought up the example of positively noting that someone’s weight loss efforts are paying off. If you have a relationship where commenting on that would be appropriate – like this is someone you talk to regularly, and he/she has noted to you several times that he/she is trying to lose weight – that’s fine! I’m sure it would make his/her day, and that’s good! Another important thing to note there is that there’s no clear gender implied here. I assume that if you have a relationship with anyone, male OR female, you know how they respond to things that you say about them. That means you can say them. Because that is your relationship. But if you’re just a random coworker who, out of nowhere, comments about someone’s body when you don’t normally talk to each other, and you also don’t normally verbally comment on everyone’s body around the office — maybe you shouldn’t. Especially since those types of comments tend to be disproportionately aimed at women. Do you see how those situations are different? How in the latter situation it would be inappropriate and might make someone feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially since that person now seems to be singled out in a kind of creepy way?

Or, take the example of Elise. I’m pretty sure that there are people in her life who call her attractive, and I’m pretty sure she is probably thrilled about that (though I don’t know, as I don’t really know her). The issue is when, on her professional page, people turn the conversation into one that is almost entirely about her appearance the very second they see an image of her face, and a space that is normally dedicated to science becomes dedicated to her looks. Again, do we see how that is different? Can we understand how that might evoke different feelings for Elise?

Now, going back to the examples I provided earlier. I hold the door open whenever someone is behind me — male or female. That’s called being a polite human being. I don’t discriminate based on gender. If you’re behind me, you get the door held open. So if a man holds the door open for me, I honestly do not think twice about it. However, if a man holds the door open for me, and then I see him deliberately not hold the door open for another man, it might cause me to feel a little peeved, or at least confused about what his thought process was there.

Sure, some people are going to have different assumptions. Maybe you’ve had personal experiences with a woman who does always assume negative or sexist intentions, even when those intentions are not there. But guess what? Some people – male or female – are just jerks. One jerk does not give you permission to discredit an entire line of thinking. Just because one person is going to overreact to every single thing that you do and assume negative intentions for everything doesn’t mean that every woman who self-identifies as feminist and agrees that benevolent sexism is a problem is going to FREAK OUT ON YOU IF YOU HOLD THE DOOR OPEN. Sure, some women might. But also, some women are jerks! You can’t say that one woman reacting like that discredits the 99% of us who really would just smile and say thank you while holding the door open for the next person behind us, just like you don’t want us to say that any single negative thing a man ever does says something horrible about all of mankind.

2. This is not about the person, it’s about the culture.

The main takeaway point of benevolent sexism is not that every person who compliments a woman is a “benevolent sexist.” It’s meant to describe a larger, problematic culture in which certain attitudes held by a society at large can perpetuate problematic structural inequalities.

The sexist thing about the response to Elise’s picture was not each individual response to her appearance. It was the aggregate fact that the overwhelming response on the part of thousands of people was a broad focus on her appearance and gender. If just one person commented that she was attractive, this would likely not be a “sexism” issue. The larger issue here is that her picture evokes a mass commentary on her appearance and femininity, whereas a male posting his picture would not evoke the same kind of mass response from readers. This indicates a larger societal difference here in terms of how men and women are viewed, which, by definition, constitutes sexism. The aggregate idea of what’s worth focusing on about Elise is what makes it an indicator of “sexism,” not every single person’s individual comment. This is why each person’s individual motivation for posting the comment or tendency to say that sort of thing “to both men and women” does not really matter. It’s not about each person individually. It’s about the collective culture and overall response. Does that make sense?

Similarly, with Brill, this is why it’s not particularly important who Brill was, or that Einstein is not the best comparison (as many have argued). Brill and Einstein are not the point. The point is that across all discussions of famous female and famous male scientists, all discussions of female scientists are going to be disproportionately more likely to focus on their roles as wives and mothers, and all discussions of male scientists are going to be disproportionately more likely to ignore that aspect of their lives. The individual obituary is not “sexist” in itself as much as it’s an indicator of a larger cultural issue in which this sort of biased viewpoint is normative.

This brings me (finally!) to my closing point. Hopefully, this distinction between individual and cultural responses will help people feel a little less like they are being attacked.

To note what one commenter said — is it sexist to compliment your own granddaughters on how pretty they are?

No! By all means, please be a loving grandfather.

However, what is sexist are the results of studies showing that when adults talk to children, they are disproportionately more likely to mention how pretty/cute they are if they are girls, and how smart they are if they are boys. That is sexism, and that is not good. It perpetuates a culture. It molds children’s ideas of what is “worthwhile” or important about themselves. It creates a problem.

This doesn’t mean that you need to fundamentally change the way that you interact with people. What it does mean is that it might be worth taking some time to think critically about how you respond to different situations, and to honestly question whether you respond to things the same way when faced with males and females. Are you more likely to tell your female children that they’re pretty, and your male children that they’re smart? Both are nice, but they are nice in critically different ways. No one is calling you cruel or unloving. No one is calling YOU sexist. All I am saying is that it might be worth giving some thought to the implications underlying the everyday things that we say.

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. syzygyygyzys 3:31 pm 04/3/2013

    I wonder if seeing some of the first inappropriate remarks on the site catalyzed more of the same from the lout demographic? I hope she provided feedback.

    Impressive skills. Please don’t rule out private sector opportunities.

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  2. 2. Mendrys 3:51 pm 04/3/2013

    Excellent followup Melanie. I often hear from my male comrades about how the other side of the issue is often ignored and they are usually correct. However, all too often this is used as an excuse to downplay legitimate complaints about sexism as in: “Who cares? This happens to men all of the time but you never hear anybody making a federal case about it!”

    As the father of both a son and daughter I have to ask myself if my statements are based on stereotypes or not. To be honest I am more sensitive about this with my daughter than my son and this is something to think about. This also brings to mind an episode involving me not too long ago when we brought a pie that I had made to a celebration with other friends. I overheard part of the conversation from another room: “My husband made this pie. It’s really good. “Oh really? Your husband made this? and he’s a man?”

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  3. 3. Spyder Z 5:22 pm 04/3/2013

    I love the article, and it’s awesome that you took the time to put together this Follow Up. Unfortunately, when faced with the very real possibility that ‘they’ might be perpetuating a culture that encourages a sexist view towards others, it seems that too many will immediately try and detract from that by pointing the finger elsewhere. So this addendum politely covers that ‘Yes, there are more issues than the specific issues brought up in the original article, but that wasn’t the focus’.

    I do my durndest every day to try an respect ‘everyone’ equally… but if I’m honest with myself, there are definitely occasions (Not too many thankfully, but it’s there) where I too fall victim to ‘Polite Sexism’. I’m going to have to really consider how I change in response to this idea… but I will do this by having open conversation with the women in my life and determining ‘How Much of a Problem’ this is for them. Of course I’ll link to these articles, and discuss it from the same source… but we’ll see…

    Again, thanks for writing this out. I love reading something that challenges my view of the world. Especially if it points out a viewpoint that I hadn’t yet considered. I’m still not sure how much of a “Problem” I have with this personally yet… but I’m overjoyed to have the chance to evaluate myself through this new lens. ;P

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  4. 4. ariellemari 7:23 pm 04/3/2013

    While I understand the meaning behind your first point here, and the point of the commenters in the original post, I absolutely must take issue with it. Sexism, at its basis, privileges men over women. It elevates masculinity over femininity. This is why we need feminism. The anti-female ideology that is the very basis of society has limited women for years, in all the ways (and more) that you eloquently outlined in your original piece. But the female struggle for equality can in no way be compared to the struggled that men are now experiencing due to the “fire-breathing feminists who jump on every perceived slight.” Sexism is bad for everyone–again, you were clear about this. But men–you have got to stop making every conversation about you. Guess what: you have history for your stomping ground. Do you feel attacked? Defensive? Are your feelings hurt? Good. Take that and think about it. Apologize for instances in which you were sexist. Ask how you can help and change. But stop making it about you and your struggles. There are few conversations that are about women first. We want there to be more. Get used to your experience not always being the most important.

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  5. 5. 'RikS 8:13 pm 04/3/2013

    Clearly, if there’s a jerk-gene, it is not isolated on the Y-chromosome.

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  6. 6. K.D. Koratsky 2:08 am 04/4/2013

    Thank you for acknowledging that their are indeed real variations between (and within) human groups that are meaningful, typically leading to “stereotypes.” The problem is that modern culture and societal expectations do not allow any of this to be considered–under the guise of relativism, whereby all are to be considered different but not better or worse in any way.

    The latter is utter make believe: based on the existence of normal distributions (bell curve spreads) that universally describe natural variation (for humans as well as other structures and phenomena); and on the fact that natural selection actually strongly selects for such variation with regard to the adaptability it provides in any number of ways.

    In other words, such variation typically does mean better or worse, as natural selection can only select for merit with regard to survivability. In some cases, the merit will be dictated by circumstance (specialized adaptations), but in others the merit will apply under most or all circumstances (generalized adaptations).

    Feminists and other relativists deny all of this while declaring that: if outcome equality does not exist within society, unfair discrimination can be assumed (social scientists also generally accept this premise). In short, the absence of meaningful characteristic variation would mean that equal opportunity and equal outcome are one and the same–which explains why merit drops out of the equation for relativists (Steven J. Gould, Jared Diamond, Malcolm Maxwell, etc., have all more or less argued this in their works).

    Yet human males and females not only vary along the same bell curve(s), they in many ways have characters described by different bell curves, with very little overlap in many areas–as males were selected to be hunting/warring specialists, while females were selected to be reproductive (and social) specialists–including physical, mental, and emotional elements. Of course, both have long contributed to economic pursuits, especially with the dawn of agriculture.

    In terms of the mental element associated with hunting and warring, high spatial aptitude is a predominantly male trait–which explains why they are overwhelmingly represented in mathematics, engineering, physical science, etc (with most males also being excluded based on bell curve dynamics).

    True there is a cultural element that promotes this; but this mostly exists because humans have developed as a matter of biocultural coevolution–with both components working together for common cause in promoting the survivability of the species. In other words, for those who argue that culture transcends and/or can counter biological dispositions–extreme caution is in order!

    At the same time, all members of society should be treated as individuals, as opposed to group members, and be assessed according to their merits–allowing a nation to enjoy optimal talent placement that leads to maximal economic and military performance (the two basic components of species survivability). Yes, FIRST IMPRESSIONS will largely be stereotypical (for good evolutionary reason), but all can either confirm or deny the odds in play based on how well they perform in competition. And may the best man OR WOMAN win!

    Please keep up your thoughtful analysis. Most academics and scientists refuse to tread into such culturally charged areas, especially when it comes to defying politically correct doctrine.

    K.D. Koratsky, Author of Living With Evolution or Dying Without It: A Guide to Understanding Humanity’s Past, Present, and Future.

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  7. 7. curiouswavefunction 11:51 am 04/4/2013

    I just wanted to say that this is one of the most thoughtful and articulate posts I have read on Sci Am Blogs in a while. The point about context is the most important in my opinion. Keep up the good work!

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  8. 8. syzygyygyzys 3:30 pm 04/4/2013


    Stipulate the bell curve stuff. Not sure that’s quite the point. After allowing the essay to percolate for a few days, I distill from it something like this.

    As a species and individuals, we are highly adaptive. Since we no longer chase stuff through the woods (or are chased), well except for fun perhaps, evolutionary gender roles are blurring. That trend may be more evidenced in those inhabiting the right side of the bell curve. Please be aware of this happening. And, when you observe such an occurrence, don’t be a knucklehead about it.

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  9. 9. billfalls 5:33 pm 04/4/2013

    This pair of posts is one of the best explanations I’ve ever seen of why some complements are cringe-worthy at best and potentially harmful. In consciousness-raising discussions in 1972 these insights were new and startling, but even after more than 40 years there is more to learn. Thank you, Melanie.

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  10. 10. K.D. Koratsky 1:42 am 04/5/2013


    The point of my bell curve elaboration is that: the politically correct notion that all humans are the same in every way that matters cannot possibly be true–yet this notion of relativism is central to modern policy prescriptions. Indeed, it is the notion of relativism that logically allows statistical results to be used as evidence of unfair and unwarranted “discrimination”–according to race, ethnicity, and in this case sex.

    In conjunction with this, “sexism” is typically associated with females being viewed and treated different from males within society, and especially the workplace. For example, as addressed by Melanie, while she does not mind compliments, many females have been trained to take offense when males offer compliments with regard to their feminine characteristics–as this suggests there are differences between the sexes that open the door for OTHER differences to be acknowledged–differences that could explain sex-based outcome discrepancies within the free market.

    The same is true with regard to African-Americans being considered superior athletes. That is, if THIS disparity between the races exists, others may also exist that are not so favorable–perhaps challenging the discrimination paradigm that has led to quota-based placement throughout society.

    With regard to the next point, we humans are indeed adaptive, which explains our unprecedented (for earthly species) ability to modify our environment to enhance our survivability. But it is critical not to misinterpret what this power affords us: that is, enhancing survivability can never mean TRANSCENDING survivability as a timeless and universal pursuit. No matter how talented we humans become, there will forever be threats to the existence of our species–physical, predatory, microbial, rival–that will best be overcome by maximizing individual survival as necessary to produce successful offspring.

    What has allowed modern females to enter the free marketplace is that: (1) the requirement for high investment in each offspring limits the number a family can afford to have; (2) low mortality rates minimize the need to produce a large number of offspring for families; (3) complex societal specialization allows families to increasingly subcontract child development duties over an extended time frame (4) all are living longer lives. In short, modern females are not required to fully dedicate themselves to reproduction as was case just a century or so ago, and have increasingly become diverse marketplace producers as a result.

    To say gender roles are blurring is a mistake however–as only human females can bear and, especially during early years, rear well-adapted offspring. This is the service males need from their mates. All else is a bonus, as males can take care of own provisions and protection. Hence, males do not typically prize females for these latter attributes. Yet females do indeed prize males for their ability to provide and protect (high-earning females choose males who make even more!), as this is what allows them to maximize their reproductive potential–in quantity and/or quality.

    Then again, males have overall become far less prized overall in modern society, as females cannot only provide their own resources and protection via the marketplace, they can quickly turn to government as a male-mate surrogate in all regards. Hence, radical feminists are known to refer to males as mere sperm donors.

    All of this may, again, suggest that humans have entered a new age and can make their own rules for species perpetuation. But all one must do is imagine what will happen when the next significant ecological downturn leads to a collapse of centralize societal structure and tribal reversion occurs. All will get back to the basics and the distinct role specialization built into the human species through millions of years of biocultural coevolution will reassert itself.

    Yet we really do not need to wait for such an event for natural selection to weigh in on modern trends. For example, many ethnic European populations are currently driving themselves to extinction as their resident females are reproducing below the replacement rate (2.1 children per parent). But at least such liberated females will have achieved equality with their male counterparts in the process!

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  11. 11. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 3:07 am 04/5/2013


    I am allowing this comment through moderation, but I would like it to be known that I actually strongly disagree with almost all of this. Please read the post more carefully for an idea about my general feelings towards evolutionary psychology & biological essentialism.


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  12. 12. syzygyygyzys 5:57 pm 04/5/2013

    Ms. Tannenbaum,

    After your last post, I looked up evolutionary psychology & biological essentialism. In the process, I came across John D. Hawks, University of Wisconsin. Do you agree with him on the pace of human evolution in the last 50,000 years?

    Here is what I found:

    Only if you have time, I know this isn’t germane to your posts.

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  13. 13. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 6:25 pm 04/5/2013

    Hi syzygyygyzys (hard username to remember and type out!),

    To be honest with you, I am very far from an evolutionary psychologist so I really have no expertise in the area. I know that I tend to disagree with a lot of how evolutionary psychology is used in popular science writing, and that I disagree with a good portion of EP work, but also that there is good theoretical work being done as well. Long story short, I wish I could offer a comment, but it is too far removed from my areas of expertise.

    I am glad that you are interested and engaged in this material, though!

    - Melanie

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  14. 14. K.D. Koratsky 6:33 pm 04/5/2013


    Thanks for clarifying your position on the matter of evolutionary psychology. However, my goal was to comment on and add context to the ideas you have presented from a highly objective and informed perspective, not to imply how you would feel about my comments one way or another (hopefully you were not considering censoring such idea-based critique, as this would in no way be consistent with spirit of reasoned or scientific debate).

    This being said, a deep understanding of evolution theory renders the tenets of evolutionary psychology of immense explanatory value. Indeed, in terms of comprehensiveness and elegance (in line with Occam’s Razor) it is difficult to imagine a model that more simply explains virtually all human behavior at a fundamental level.

    Indeed, the problem (as indicated by your response) is that the answers are far too simple and comprehensive–not allowing humans to create their own realities based on feelings, beliefs, self-interests, etc.

    In fact, this is the problem with science in general for the population at large, as it has become increasingly clear that the standard of evidence vis a vis scientific rationalism can be applied to EVERYTHING we see around us. The Right hates this because it encroaches on chosen traditional religious ideas and teachings (morals, the essence of the soul and/or consciousness, the creation of the universe, etc.); the Left hates this because it does not allow chosen postmodernist utopian ideas and teachings to be defended in any way.

    At the same time, if you can debunk the data and/or mechanisms that support the claims of evolutionary psychologists, and other evolutionists like myself, please do so. I will immediately pencil in the changes for the next edition of my book–giving you full credit for the revised portions, of course.

    I am confident this will not happen based of the considerable aggregation of evidence I have found over the last 23 years of project research (as part of well over 30,000 hours of effort overall), but would love to be proven wrong–as this will bring us all more in line with the realities of human existence.

    For my only goal is to discover such realities and turn them into optimal function for the betterment (survivability) of humankind. THIS is the only dog I have in the fight.



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  15. 15. syzygyygyzys 8:03 pm 04/5/2013

    Ms. Tannenbaum,

    Thanks for the reply. I’ll search for other comments on his work.

    I appreciate your active participation in comments. I’ve seen other blog comment sections devolve into volleys of unproductive screeds motivated (I assume) by the commenters’ compulsion to participate.

    syzygy: the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system

    It’s the only word in English without a true vowel as far as I know.

    That was taken so used the word and mirror image. I chose poorly.

    I copy and paste the long ones.

    -syzygy (for short)

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  16. 16. niki-85 11:34 am 04/8/2013

    K.D. Koratsky as a professional scientist, albeit not in the same field as you, my avid interest in evolutionary anthropology gained from reading as well as the professional opinions of friends of mine in the field leads me to feel that many of the hypotheses you mention are disregarding many modern studies.

    Whilst I agree that there are differences between the sexes which will always be apparent and each gender has advantages/disadvantages at certain tasks, many of the theories you are quoting are not taking into account all the evidence that is in the field. It has been shown from studying modern day hunter/gatherer groups that the role of the genders is not as divided as what was once thought. Men and women both contribute to hunting and gathering, with women doing slightly more gathering and men doing slightly more hunting (and hunter bigger game). It has also been found however that women have a higher success rate hunting smaller game and it is thought that in early human civilizations women would contribute significantly to the day to day food and survival of the group, whereas men would hunt big game which would be a larger gamble but possible higher payout (more overall food for long term storage, skins, bones) and there is also the theory that this was to impress potential mates. It is thought in terms of human evolution that there was no gender divide whatsoever (similar to the Neanderthals) until the Upper Paleolithic era, meaning that a lot of the gender divide in labour was learnt and cultural rather than evolved. Recent studies and reviews have shown that differences in spacial awareness between the genders are exaggerated and some studies have found no significant difference at all which relates to their similar roles in hunting. It has also been postulated that the relative size of men to women (being very similar) demonstrates their equality in terms of roles and dominance in humans groups.

    Also bear in mind that until very recently in history, society, science and the theories of the evolution of man have been very patriarchal and have also been based partly on the social status of women. An example of this is that as women have been given more economic and social power the differences between the genders in sexual partners/sex drive have become less.
    As women are further empowered research needs to be redone and reassessed to remove this patriarchal bias. this is perhaps why Melanie feels a bit uneasy at this sort of topic as there is still work to untangle a lot of the bias in the area.

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  17. 17. FShee 10:19 am 04/10/2013

    I’m interested in reading about the hunter/gatherer fallacy but not having much luck finding in-depth discussions of it – can you point me to any good articles/blog posts about it?

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  18. 18. K.D. Koratsky 6:20 pm 04/12/2013

    I understand why you are averse to publishing my argument(s) on your blog; there is little here to benefit your brand.

    But if you want to run with “the big dogs” as a Ph.D., including the patriarchal male big dogs, you will have to be able to defend yourself well in the realm of debate. Suppressing and/or ignoring the opposition, while immersed in a tank of groupthink, will only delay the inevitable.

    The best arguments will prevail (just ask Galileo!), and, in this case, as well as all others for that matter, they will extend from the practical implications of evolution theory that are universal and timeless.

    Then again, if you can show how this claim is false, you will have a brand that is universal and timeless, and we will all be better off for it!



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  19. 19. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 3:18 am 04/13/2013


    I will publicly admit that I did not publish a very, very long tirade from this commenter that was so long that it stretched across 4 separate comments and hit the maximum word limit on each one. After I initially did not publish it, the entire thing was resubmitted again. I did not publish it, again. I was hoping the commenter would get the point.

    The arguments were unrelated to my main piece, condescending, and insulting to both myself and to another commenter. And, to be completely honest, they were uninteresting and agenda-driven. I really don’t care about getting into a long-winded debate about evolution in the comments section of this piece. So, I decided not to publish those comments. Game over.

    Now, Mr. Koratsky (and yes, I looked up the author of this post to ensure that I am correct in using the title “Mr.” instead of “Dr.” — I find it to be an incredibly revealing note about this man’s personality that, although he does not have a Ph.D. himself, he thinks he has any sort of authority on how I ought to conduct myself when I receive mine in a year if I want to be taken seriously): I would also like to note that this is not my full time job. I wrote a piece, and my “obligation” to you in terms of defending my arguments was over as soon as I hit “Publish.” I am not obliged to respond to a single thing that you or anyone say; my contract with Scientific American is for writing the original blog posts. I do not get any sort of compensation, credit, or reward for responding to comments. Any time that I (or other bloggers) spend doing so is entirely of our own volition, in the interest of furthering important conversations and engaging in valuable scientific dialogue. However, there comes a point (like…over a week after originally publishing the post, when all of the possible critiques and comments have already been raised dozens of times and addressed at length several times over) when the costs outweigh the benefits, and it makes more sense to stop dedicating so much time to the comments in an old post rehashing points that have already been made over and over and over during the past week, and shift focus to other things (like other posts or, oh, I don’t know…the dissertation I am currently writing?! You know, minor things like that). Your expectation that I must take time out of my incredibly busy day to spend even more time responding at length to comments than I have already spent writing this entire additional post that you are commenting on is pure, unabashed entitlement, plain and simple.

    As a good friend of mine states in his comment policy, think of this section like the Letters to the Editor. If someone wrote an article in print that you disagreed with, and you wrote a Letter to the Editor which did not get published and to which you never received a thorough, personalized response from the author, would you then accuse that author of not being able to “run with the big dogs” and defend his/her arguments? Or would you understand that authors will not personally respond to every single comment, critique, or piece of feedback that they ever get on a piece, and that sometimes your comments will not get published? No one is “suppressing” you. You are perfectly capable of taking your opinions to any other site that you wish. Just not this one, because this is my space. Not getting a comment published on a blog is not a “suppression” of your speech. And besides…suppression? Groupthink? Really?!?! Do you *honestly* think that alternate viewpoints have NOT been published or represented in the comment section for the original benevolent sexism post? Or this post? Which was SPECIFICALLY WRITTEN TO ACKNOWLEDGE AND RESPECTFULLY ADDRESS COMMENTERS’ CRITIQUES? Really? Just…really?! Because if so, my mind is just blown. I don’t even understand how you can possibly see the world, if you are seeing these comment sections (for which I have only moderated comments coming from 3 people, of a total of over 80 comments) as a haven of groupthink and conformity.

    I almost don’t want to bring this back around to sexism, because I have no way of knowing if Mr. Koratsky would be this disrespectful and entitled when dealing with a man he disagrees with… but really, I wanted to publish this comment to further demonstrate, once again, the types of comments that women often receive. Note how even in a comment designed to look “respectful,” I am condescended to, spoken to like a child, told that my moderation of comments on my own blog is “suppression” and “groupthink,” and accused of not being able to defend myself. Every single blog on the Scientific American blog network (and on every other blog network) has a comment policy. Blog authors, male or female, are allowed to moderate as they see fit. I will note that I have been MORE than fair in terms of what comments I have allowed on these posts. I have allowed through comments that hundreds of people have told me they never would have allowed to see the light of publication. Comments filled with angry disagreement at best, and vitriol & personal attacks at worst. I even went so far as to print this entire supplementary post that you are commenting on as an incredibly thorough defense of my original arguments.

    This is your final warning. Any more comments like this, and I will not hesitate to block you. I also suggest that you quickly lose your sense of entitlement. No one here is obligated to prove anything to you, and you would be well served by learning that as soon as possible if you want to run with the “big dogs” in academic blogging.

    Finally, if you’re going to accuse anyone of not being willing to grapple with other people’s comments and defend oneself against criticism, might I suggest that you not begin with the person who wrote an entire 4,000 word supplementary piece dedicated to respectfully addressing comments and criticism. Not the wisest choice if you don’t want to look like a whining fool.

    - Melanie

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  20. 20. kellyoakes 4:20 am 04/13/2013

    Well put, Melanie. As you said, you are well within your rights not to allow through *anything* in the comments section, if you don’t want to. You have been more than reasonable so far – I know I wouldn’t have let through half the comments you have.

    Some commenters don’t quite seem to get the concept of a blog being the author’s personal space. Weirdly, those are also the kind of commenters who are condescending and seem a bit paranoid (suppression… ha!).

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  21. 21. sharayurkiewicz 4:31 am 04/13/2013

    Observer here, and a longtime reader of Melanie’s.

    1. I agree with most, if not all, of the points raised in her original post. I thought it was well-explained and respectful. I also understand that obviously not everyone sees eye to eye on it, and that is okay.

    2. I think it was helpful of her to write the second post that addressed many of the comments raised in the first. It was a smart way not to get too bogged down in individual comments and create more of a general template addressing them. Time constraints call, after all.

    3. I am thankful that she has had the patience to write these comprehensive and well-researched articles. There are people like me who agree with her sentiment but for better or for worse choose to invest our time pursuing other things. I think the discourse is needed, and although I will not be the one to lead it, I whole-heartedly support anyone who does.

    4. Looking at the comments, I don’t believe Melanie has suppressed any arguments that don’t support her “brand.” I see agreement and I see criticism (some comments respectful, others less so).

    5. Once you make any personal comments such as those giving “advice” about how Melanie should conduct herself in her program if she wants to be taken seriously or how she should respond to comments, you lose. This is not an argument. I don’t like the term “concern trolling” because I don’t know anyone’s true motives, so I won’t use it. Suffice to say, such comments are off-topic and counterproductive to an otherwise thoughtful debate.

    6. Melanie is one of the best science writers I know. (I realize this violates #5 above, because now I am speaking about her personally, but I want to balance out some of the above negative comments.) I have admired and shared her work for a long time. I do not know much about her as an academic, but I imagine if she’s half as good as she is as a writer, I think she will do quite well with the “big dogs.”

    All best,

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  22. 22. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 4:39 am 04/13/2013

    Thank you, Kelly :)

    And “paranoid” is right! I really just have to laugh at the narcissism in Koratsky’s attribution for why his comment(s) didn’t get published.

    Was it because they formed a 2500-word, boring, one-sided, poorly written, irrelevant-to-the-original-topic, rambling lecture on evolutionary anthropology, hunter-gatherer societies, gender differences in spatial abilities, and sexual dimorphism in body size, wrapped up with an (unreferenced) assertion that patriarchies must have been “selected for” because they’re best for society? And because I made a judgment call that this rambling essay in my comments section really didn’t add anything to the conversation at all, and would only be a giant, clunky, unnecessary, irrelevant, and largely disrespectful use of a giant amount of space that would make it difficult for people scrolling through the comments to see other comments that are actually relevant to what was being discussed in the main piece?

    Nope! It was my inability to deal with criticism! And suppression! Definitely suppression.

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  23. 23. scicurious 7:46 am 04/13/2013

    I have heard it said that “it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you”. I would say in This commenter’s case, it can be amended to “it’s not paranoia if you really are producing horrid offensive material that doesn’t deserve to be published.”

    If you are so dreadfully desperate to get your opinions out there, I strongly suggest that you get your own blog: There you can easily express your free speech to your heart’s content.

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  24. 24. kclancy 10:04 am 04/13/2013

    Hi Melanie, I’m not going to even try to confront the troll’s comments, because you’re right… he’s a troll. I don’t engage with them as a general rule. He can try and repost all he wants, he doesn’t deserve space in your living room like this.

    But I WILL tell you that I think your post was thoughtful, coherent, interesting, and important. Thank you for continuing to do the work that you do. You are a fantastic writer and thinker.

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  25. 25. matthewfrancis 10:16 am 04/13/2013

    Your blog is definitely your space; if Mr. Koratsky wants to write something on his own blog in response to your piece, he is obviously free to do so.

    I don’t get sexist trolls on my blog, but I do get crackpots who are very happy to expound on their “theories” about why basic physics principles (relativity, Big Bang cosmology, the theory of gravity) are wrong. They also cry “censorship” when I delete them, but I put all of that in the same category as your pet troll: nobody needs to read it.

    Bravo, and keep up the good work! I loved both of these pieces on benevolent sexism.

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  26. 26. Jennifer Ouellette 11:14 am 04/13/2013

    Dear Mr. K.: It’s a really big Internet out there. If you have something you’d like to share with the world, start your own blog and pontificate to your heart’s content. Just remember that nobody is obligated to read it.

    It’s astonishing to me that so many people feel entitled to spew their venom at will in comments sections. Commenting isn’t a right, it’s a privilege — and if you abuse that privilege don’t be surprised when your comments aren’t approved.

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  27. 27. Paleoecologist 11:34 am 04/13/2013

    Mr. Koratsky, I have found that having a PhD does not make your comments any more intelligible, well-reasoned, or accurate. It also doesn’t make your sexism– which you attempt to prop up on a sandy foundation of evolutionary psychology and biological essentialism–any less apparent.

    Now, if you want to run with the big dogs, you’re going to have to learn that your bigotry isn’t tolerated, and that no one has an obligation to provide a forum for your verbose, peripatetic, and pedantic brand of trolling.

    I recommend that you step back, learn a few things about feminism– real feminism, mind you, and not the straw feminism you’re so comfortable with (because it further justifies your sexist positions), and sit with your discomfort for a while as you confront your own privilege. I’ll even provide you with some handy references:

    That should keep you busy for a while. You may think you already know what feminism is, but I can guaranty from your comments that you don’t– and that this is fundamentally impeding your ability to make successful arguments. If you have time to write thousands of words criticizing someone for not responding to the arguments that she’s already responded to, then you have time to educate yourself.

    ~Jacquelyn Gill

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  28. 28. syzygyygyzys 2:02 pm 04/13/2013

    Ms. Tannenbaum,


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  29. 29. JAMRTMB 10:10 am 07/19/2014

    Your response to the existence of benevolent sexism against males and of the many negative male leads in TV sitcoms was that there was little/no research in this area and it was something you hate etc. I think a more relevant approach to this aspect of BS is to ask why society does not see fit to agitate for more research or why there is so little backlash against negative male stereotypes, as this reflects that society is not overly worried by BS against men or addressing it (both men and women). The men who died in large numbers in wartime were not considered victims of sexism, and while mourned, were glorified as heroic. The capability of a society to mobilise and indoctrinate countless battalions of naive and ignorant teenage males to kill and be killed must surely rank as the most impactive example of BS and yet it is never cast in this light.
    The segregation of the sexes in sport, like the Olympics and elite tennis events, is an example of BS against women. The underlying principle is that women are in need of protection from competing against males, and so are provided the opportunity to be considered elite, by allowing them a segregated event but very similar kudos to the men – Wimbledon was the last of the tennis majors to pay the same purse for the ladies singles. The reality is that a sex blind sports arena would wipe out all elite female athletes and sportswomen. However, the political impact of even acknowledging this fact, as well as the conflict this would produce between women, highlights the lengths that women who benefit from BS will hang onto the benefit regardless of their role (according to Fiske) that they are perpetuating a dis-service to all women.
    By the definition used by Fiske, the feminist movement itself is founded on BS as it points out that women as a sex are in need of being helped, specifically because they are women. This despite the fact that women live longer lives, commit suicide around one quarter as often as men do in most countries, are less likely to be homeless or jailed than men. These four things go to the root of what people truly value in life, namely – life itself, happiness, control and liberty.

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  30. 30. awomaninthecity 4:12 pm 08/3/2014

    Came across this article few days ago and the one preceding it on benevolent sexism. Just started my blog which is centered around anecdotes and experiences from a woman who worked at the city (london)/wall street. wanted to express my support to the author. It is not often you find this issue articulated so effectively. It is still a big issue in the professional world, especially in large companies who pretend otherwise. Also tried to start a trend on twitter on the subject of maternity leave #maternityleavereactions, because in terms of benevolent sexism, a pregnant woman gets it 10 times more.

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