It used to be known as ‘chivalry’. But now behaviour from men such as holding doors open for women or offering their jacket if a woman looks cold has been reclassified as “benevolent sexism” by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston.
The researchers argue that we are all aware of “hostile sexism”, which they classify as a belief that “women who claim to want equality actually want special treatment”, liking “topless calendars”, and saying that “most women interpret innocent remarks as sexism”, the Daily Mail has reported.
But they claim to have identified a more benevolent form, displayed by men who “call women ‘love’ or ‘dear'”, or who say that “men should make sacrifices to provide for women”, including rescuing women first from a sinking ship – and the way to tell the difference is by observing the man’s smile.
Professor Judith Hall, of Northeastern University in Boston, said: “Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women. These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing and harmless.”
Prof Hall and her colleague Jin Goh paired men, aged 18 – 22 with a women who they had never met before, who they asked to play a quiz game together and then chat with. They then asked the men to fill in a form designed to discover whether they held sexist attitudes.
The research partners found that men who were classed as “benevolent sexists” smiled more whilst playing the quiz game, were more patient when waiting for their female partner to answer quiz questions, and were warmer, friendlier and chattier than those who were classed as “hostile sexists”.
Mr Goh said: “Benevolent sexist men hold women in high regard and are willing to sacrifice themselves to save and protect women.
“However, benevolent sexist men perceive women as the weaker gender at the same time. Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.”
The researchers argued that whilst polite, warm, friendly behaviour may be well intentioned, that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. They claimed that ‘benevolent sexists’ see women as “warm and pure, yet helpless and incompetent beings”.
But critics have pointed out that human women, in line with many other species are, in fact, physically smaller and weaker than their male counterparts, and therefore occasionally in need of protection.
Jill Kirby, a writer on social policy, said: “There are times when it is very important for women to be protected. We should accept this and not seek to stamp out what is likely a good instinct on the whole.”