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Benevolent Sexism: An Addendum.


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.

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

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