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).

Secondly, 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.