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Benevolent sexism – I don’t need you to carry my briefcase 

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I remember it like it happened yesterday. My colleague and I were packing our briefcases at the end of a long day. Another colleague approached and offered to carry my colleague’s briefcase. She declined his offer, and he offered again. She refused again, and he said, “But you’re such a little thing.” I remember this incident so clearly, even though it happened several years ago. It was disorienting and awkward.

On the one hand, his offer seemed nice, maybe even chivalrous. On the other hand, it reinforced traditional stereotypes about gender roles, responsibilities, and capabilities. It also felt bigger than just an offer to carry my colleague’s briefcase. My colleague had co-chaired the meetings that day, but somehow was seen as too weak to carry her own briefcase. I was offended by the interaction, but it also made me nervous. Our male colleague was a senior leader, and he seemed offended by my colleague declining his help. Was refusing his offer a career limiting move?

Much later, I learned that this interaction has a name — benevolent sexism. What I felt in that moment was the harm that is caused when this form of sexism occurs in the workplace.

What is Benevolent Sexism?

Studies suggest that there are two types of sexism1: Hostile sexism and benevolent sexism.

Hostile sexism is the more overt and obviously negative form of sexism. It includes conduct that reflects negative stereotypes about women. Examples include: a comment that certain work is “women’s work”; asking only the women at a meeting (who hold the same positions as the men in attendance) to take notes or get coffee; making statements that women need less money if they have a husband who is the “breadwinner.”

Benevolent sexism is more covert and subtle. It refers to attitudes, practices, and actions which may seem positive, but which reinforce established stereotypes about women. Examples of benevolent sexism include:2

    • Offering Unnecessary Help: A male colleague insisting on carrying heavy objects for a female colleague “because it’s too much for her” (or because she’s “such a little thing”).
    • Gendered Role Expectations: Suggesting that women are more suited to nurturing roles due to their “innate kindness,” or that they need male protection. These expectations reinforce stereotypes and can limit women’s opportunities in the workplace.
    • Undervaluing Professional Contributions: Failing to give women challenging assignments or promotions based on the assumption that it would be too stressful or interfere with family commitments.
    • Focus on Appearance: Basing attention and praise on a woman’s appearance rather than her professional qualifications and performance.
    • Patronizing Compliments: Compliments that imply a woman’s success is surprising or unusual for her gender.
    • Assumptions About Personal Life: Assuming a woman will not want a promotion or new responsibilities because she might be planning a family or has children.

Why is Benevolent Sexism Problematic?

Benevolent sexism often goes unnoticed or unchallenged. Because it is often viewed in a positive light, perpetrators are less likely to be labeled as sexist. The women who call out such forms of sexism are often judged negatively, being perceived as cold or having a chip on their shoulders.

While benevolent sexism may be seen as harmless, or even considered to be supportive of women, the underlying message is that women are delicate, dependent beings who require constant “protection” by men. These notions, even when delivered positively, reinforce damaging stereotypes, particularly for women who want to succeed in male-dominated professions and environments.

Research shows that benevolent sexism can impact the mental and psychological health of both men and women.3 Women may internalize feelings of dependency and self-doubt, while men may develop a sense of paternalistic entitlement and superiority. Such feelings can limit individual growth and perpetuate gender inequalities.4

Tips for Workplace Investigators  

Because the attitudes and behaviours that reflect benevolent sexism seem positive on the surface, investigators need to be vigilant. Here are some key points to consider when conducting investigations.

Understanding the Subtlety: Benevolent sexism is often less overt than hostile sexism and can be harder to recognize. Investigators should focus on identifying patterns of behaviour that, while potentially well-intentioned, reinforce traditional gender roles and subtly undermine women’s competence and autonomy.

Examining Attitudes and Beliefs: Investigate the underlying attitudes and beliefs that may contribute to benevolent sexism. These attitudes and beliefs include reverence of women in traditional roles, romanticizing women as objects of affection, and the belief that men have a duty to protect women.

Assessing Impact: Evaluate how stereotypical attitudes and behaviours affect the workplace environment and the individuals involved and consider the negative impacts on women.

Cultural and Racial Factors: Perceptions of benevolent sexism may differ by culture and may be influenced by factors such as religion and racial identity.

Why This Is Important

Benevolent sexism is widespread, and harms everyone who is touched by it. Because benevolent sexism masquerades as positive conduct towards women, investigators must be trained to recognize the telltale attitudes and behaviours which, while seemingly supportive of women, are evidence of discrimination based on sex.5

1 The term originated in a 1996 paper written by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske titled, “Hostile and benevolent sexism: Measuring ambivalent sexist attitudes toward women” (1997) 21:1 Psychology of Women Quarterly at 119–135.

2 Negin Sattari, Sarah H. DiMuccio, Joy Ohm, and Jose M. Romero, “Dismantling ‘Benevolent’ Sexism” (June 8, 2022), online (Harvard Business Law Review): <https://hbr.org/2022/06/dismantling-benevolent-sexism>.

3 Orly Bareket and Susan T. Fiske, “A Tale of Two Sexisms: Hostility Dominates Women, and Benevolence Guards Men’s Status” (March 22, 2024), online (Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.): <Link>.

4 Bhavna Dalal, “What It Means To Experience ‘Benevolent Sexism’ — And How To Fight Back” (July 26, 2023), online <https://www.yourtango.com/self/benevolent-sexism>.

5 If you interested in the topic of sexism, I encourage you to read recent articles by my colleagues Katharine Montpetit (“Ontario’s Bill 190: What it could mean for investigating workplace ‘virtual’ sexual harassment”) and Flora Vineberg (“Understanding sexual harassment in the restaurant industry”).

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