Benevolent Sexism: It Ain’t That Simple

A guest post by Jenna Harris

Approaching the door at the same time as a man is often an awkward experience for any woman. Imagine the man is a co-worker, or boss even, and he speeds up to open the door. How polite, right? Or, according to research in psychology, how… benevolently sexist? What should we make of this gesture? Women often ask themselves this question not necessarily about the act of opening the door, but about the intention behind it—does the man open the door because he perceives women as weaker than men? We must be cautious about crying wolf. Is there a clear line between benevolent sexism and genuine politeness? Although the line sometimes may be blurred, we should be careful not to generalize any polite act by a man toward a woman as having a derogatory undertone.

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Image credit: Richard Ha, CC BY 2.0

Take the Southern United States, for example. In many Southern households, principles of chivalry are taught at a young age, with the pure intention of teaching young men how to be respectful toward women. Many cultures outside of the United States also share similar principles, making it difficult to pinpoint what comes from traditional polite and respectful behavior toward women, and what comes from condescension. The situation is even more complex in multicultural environments. If we do not understand specific traditions and customs, we should not make the assumption of sexism. And even if we do know them well, individual variability must be accounted for. In other words, it can be really difficult to accurately identify human intention.

In fact, psychologists have been working to dissect the motives behind complex human behavior for decades. Carl Jung, the founder of psychoanalysis, spent his life working to understand human behavior, with a keen eye on cultural and gender perspectives. Unfortunately, he has been accused of being sexist for his theory of anima and animus—the male and female components of the psyche. Not agreeing with Jung is one thing, as an essential component of the scientific process is to challenge theories and hypotheses. However, labeling him as sexist is not only disheartening, but it also results in stigmatization.

Benevolent sexism may be encountered in all aspects of life. Melanie Tannenbaum makes a strong case for why benevolence is a problem for women in STEM fields. In particular, she highlights examples of how stereotypes of women are reinforced through benevolence. She includes the example of Yvonne Brill, a pioneering rocket scientist. Tannenbaum argues that in Brill’s obituary, strong emphasis was placed on Brill’s family life, something that is not emphasized in obituaries of male scientists. But, is this really an example of benevolent sexism? I believe Yvonne Brill was a pioneer, not only because she was a woman rocket scientist, but also because she was a woman who was passionate about her successful career as a scientist while, at the same time, being a mother and wife. Emphasizing the combined scientist, mother, and wife roles she successfully played during a time when this was unheard of is not necessarily a representation of benevolent sexism, rather the recognition of her as one of the earliest role models for aspiring women scientists who wish to maintain a rewarding family life.

Let’s stop throwing around the term “sexist”, not because sexism does not exist, but because loosely using this word is polarizing for both women and men. In our personal and professional lives, we will not always get along with everyone, and we certainly must not tolerate any discriminatory behavior, but let us not be accusatory either. As I was taught growing up in the South, if a man holds the door open for me, I politely say “thanks” and go on with my business.

 

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About the author: Jenna Harris is a senior undergraduate studying neuroscience and psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is passionate about genetics and molecular neuroscience, and her hometown, Atlanta. In her spare time she likes to watch anime and read about historic scientists.

 

 

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18 comments

  1. Benevolent sexism is hard to define and interpret, because in examples like holding the door open, we don’t know the exact intentions of whomever we’re interacting with. I agree with Jenna in that we should be careful not to generalize acts like these as sexist. In my opinion if acts like these are at all helpful of kind we should encourage them instead of questioning them, and in turn start doing them for others. I see that as more productive for our society as a whole than overanalyzing them. Of course I am not saying that we should completely ignore sexism, and see it as kindness, but I think that or efforts and energies would be better served addressing overt sexism. I also appreciated Jenna’s remarks on multicultural interactions. If America is truly to be a melting pot we should focus more on our understanding of other’s interactions and customs. I believe that everyone could benefit from our culture putting in the effort to make others feel valued and appreciated in daily interactions.

    • I agree with you, Kirsten. While I do think benevolent sexism exists, I don’t think it’s necessarily something men do to make us feel inferior. I have a ton of guy friends who hold doors open, walk closer to the sidewalk, let the woman walk in first, etc., but they do these things because they were taught by their moms and dads that this is the polite thing to do. Granted, the original basis of these “kindnesses” relates back to sexism, but it think that idea has been watered down and men do these things just to be polite. I, for one, never really was bothered by these little things, even though I know that they came from a sexist time and place where women were treated as the weaker sex. I also open just as many doors (for men and women) as I’ve had opened for me. I walk closer to the sidewalk when I’m with kids. I think all of these kinds of “rules” can be brought back so some kind of -ism, but in the world we live in now, I think we need to keep our eyes on the blatant sexism that we all have to deal with, and will have to continue dealing with for probably the rest of our lives. For now, we should focus on making sure nobody tries to take away the civil liberties we’ve fought so hard for. Before we address the milder forms of sexism, I think we need to address the big problems first: gender wage gap, gender inequality in executive roles, being objectified by men, and even the way we talk to each other. I think once we address and fix the bigger problems, it will be much easier to address benevolent sexism. In the mean time, I’ll continue to be polite and say thank you when a man holds my door open, but I’ll make sure I open the next one for him.

    • I completely agree with you, Mary and Kirsten. As a society we tend of over-analyze things that doesn’t require any analysis at all. And although sexism isn’t something to be ignored, in certain situations the term isn’t necessary. Prime example, as Jenna mentioned about men opening doors for women, we don’t know if the intention is to make the woman feel lesser than or to simply be polite. However, I do know that when we decide to date men, some have expectations for their men to open and close every door behind them, pull out their chair and wait to be seated after a woman, and even help her in and out of her coat. There’s a fine line between benevolent sexism and chivalry. I believe that our expectations vs. societies realities makes it difficult to define and separate the two.

  2. Although I believe that we, as marginalized human beings, may fall prey to accusatory statements, is it really that accusatory if we are approaching a door and a man runs in front to grab it for us? It is benevolently sexist, in my personal opinion. Through socialization, boys are taught through explicit language or modeling to protect and take care of women; and opening a door is no different. Although most of us are very well capable – without disabilities – men still feel a deep rooted need to cater to us. I have spent numerous class periods talking about this very topic, along with reading on my own, and have discovered that this act really is rooted in the fact that women are viewed as weaker and unable to solely provide for themselves. This does not mean that it is not a simple act of kindness, but more so a product of how we socialize our boys and men. I am a firm believer that those who approach a door first should hold open the door for the person behind them – man or woman. This is an act of kindness, yes, but it is an act of kindness that can be fulfilled by able bodied men or women.

    We have been socialized to fit the binary gender system, and our actions speak loudly. I don’t think this is anything men who rush to open doors for women are aware of, but I am fully aware of the nature of the act; this could be a result of education, who knows? I do agree that there is great need to respect cultures and their traditions, but are we wrong to let our own experiences and views guide how we think about the world as women? At the end of the day, most countries around the world are patriarchal, including our own, and our cultures and traditions stem from the system of patriarchy. So yes, it may be a widely accepted practice in a culture, but what is the meaning and origin of that practice?

    Secondly, Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalytic theory and psychoanalysis. With that being said, he is a hot topic in many psychology courses in regards to blatant sexism and the idea of penis envy. Although he put forth sexist ideas, there is no denying that he has been highly influential in shaping the field of psychology. Regardless of whether someone is sexist or not, offense is subjective and that is what matters in these situations. We are all socialized to fit the binary gender system and to act accordingly. So yes, Brill did show that women can be passionate inside and outside of the home, but one should not be praised for their traditional work inside of the home more than their groundbreaking work outside of the home. Again, we will always fall back into the ideas of our respective predetermined gender roles – whether explicitly or implicitly.

    Let’s be polite and give thanks when needed, but let’s move away from the notion that women are incapable of performing the simple task of opening a door for themselves. All of our actions originated somewhere, and the answer is usually socialization according to the patriarchal system. It may be kind, but is it all that genuine?

    • Ashley, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Previously, in a psychology class we took the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory and my result said that I am a sexist. Concerning, right? I realized I received this result because I am okay with men opening the door for women and do often view men as the protectors – if I am walking down the street with a man, and am approached by a sketchy character, then I do place expectation on the man to handle the situation (under the assumption that he is physically stronger than me). Being born and raised in Georgia, culturally, I was taught that these behaviors are standard and quite frankly, I am okay with that. In fact, across the animal kingdom, male animals often protect females. In our sophisticated world, specifically, in the workplace, these behaviors become complicated and misplaced, I believe, resulting in disadvantages for women.
      However, I do disagree with saying that every time a man opens the door for a woman, his intention is to belittle. To give some background, I was raised by my father and have mostly male mentors, all of whom have held the door open for me at some point in time, and never, have I felt that this gesture was not simply out of politeness. A more vivid example, sometimes, whether at home or at work, I physically cannot pick something up, so I will ask a male. Even when demonstrating that I am physically weaker, this has never resulted in the men treating me as mentally weaker, whether in a meeting or in day-to-day conversation. I realize these are just small-scale examples from my life, but it has made me realize that men can genuinely help or display acts of kindness toward women without it becoming pathological sexism. This is why I feel so strongly that it is polarizing to throw around the label “sexist”.
      Yes, we live in a predominantly patriarchal world, and sure, this system can influence culture, but being from the South, I have witnessed many strong southern women obtain success. Many times in WomenLead, we have heard that Atlanta, GA is a great place for business and entrepreneur women. For all of my teenage years, Atlanta had a female mayor. So, in my view, I can have it all, my culture and success.

    • In my opinion, I feel people love to throw around labels to combat what is occurring. Human beings need to understand what is happening to feel comfortable and safe and when we do not put people and situations in boxes we are uncomfortable because that is something that is unfamilar to us and we no longer have control nor can we predict what will transpire afterward. I agree with both Ashley and Jenna because they create valid points that explain how men are conditioned to be the protectors and how women can still succeed in a setting where men open the doors for us. I have a male friend who stated to me that if I want to be treated equally, I have to accept that I will no longer be treated like a lady. So, that set me back a little bit because I am a woman, a woman who deserves to be respected and valued as one. His statement just had me thinking that as a woman who wants to be truly equal to men and have the same opportunities and advantages that men have I have to realize that isn’t possible if I continue to feel entitled to having my door held opened for me. I as a woman must take a stand on proving I too am capable of standing on my own two feet without the help of a man. And I say this because I don’t want to be a man I just want what men have available to them to thrive as if I was a man, but still be a woman with every curve and grace. I am proud to be a woman and to say I will no longer be treated as if I was one was a little hard for me to grasp with because as a woman I too have my advantages that people fail to realize just as men have their advantages. But, in a sense, if we want more respect and change within the workplace we have to start revealing that we too are capable of doing anything a man can do. And it’s rare when men hold the door open for other men so why should women condone something that is subconsciously paralyzing them in the workplace. Women and men aren’t that different, and people make it seem as if we are two distinct creatures when in reality we all just want the same things in the end. To be who we are and to be respected for who we are. So, I don’t mind men opening the doors for me but as Ashley stated it just shouldn’t be for me because even though our norms condone this behavior we as the youth and women can change social norms for the future where everyone is more inclusive on what is offered. But, somethings just don’t need an in-depth meaning sometimes it’s just a man holding a door for a woman, and that’s it.

  3. I agree that benevolent sexism does exist within our culture. I also agree that (in the door example) who ever gets to the door first should hold it open. However, there is definitely a form of unintentional sexism that comes from women. For example, if I hold the door open for a woman I often receive a suspicious look or no “thank you”. My male counter-parts often receive a simple thank you. While I do appreciate the culture of a man holding the door open for a woman, out of being polite, I do realize that it comes from the assumption that I am too weak to open the door. One other case of benevolent sexism includes ordering food for the woman during dinner. This is meant to show that the man is in control and essentially reinforces the idea that the woman is weaker. There are many other cases that are more overtly sexist.

    • At the end of the day, it really does all lead back to how we have been socialized as human beings for generations. Benevolent sexism is all around us, and I think most people are blind to the fact that it is a natural part of our culture – and many others. I once had my friend yell at me for going to open the door from the backseat of her car because her soon-to-be husband was on the way around to open her door…and apparently to open mine as well. So, this stems far beyond a man doing everything for his wife who he perceives to be almost childlike and has to be taken care of; female friends of the wife/significant other are also categorized into the same exact role. Chivalry is not dead…and it is a deep-rooted part of the male identity. Any deviation from this could result in a weakened male status. I must say, though, that I have never denied a man who offered up his seat to me on the bus at school. In the end, we all play into the system – whether we realize it or not.

    • That is a great point of view. When in a relationship, I believe that holding a door is agreeable but ordering food for the woman is a little too much. It encourages the idea of benevolent sexism because it assumes that the woman is not smart enough to order for herself. Yet, it may seem “cute” to some women but what is the meaning behind it? Is it to seem dominant? That may be so but I do know that men can be vindictive and assume that a woman is to do everything by herself if she criticizes him for portraying benevolent sexism.

  4. I agree with this article. Of course, sexism and benevolent sexism exists, but often women are guilty of abusing the ideas of chivalry and have this whole ” I can do bad all by myself” motto. When a guy does not open a door for me or keep a door open for me, I question it because he’s rude? Or he didn’t see me? Or he feels like women can do things on their own and he doesn’t feel any obligation? It can be all of the above or it can be none of the above. Everyone’s culture is different; everyone wasn’t raised like one another. When a guy doesn’t open a door for me or bumps into me in the street or doesn’t allow for me to pass, I get upset. I do feel like men should hold doors for women, say excuse me when passing and walk on the outside of the street when passing or with a woman. I feel like that’s the core manners because my mother engraved in me that that’s what a gentleman does. As I feel myself getting upset and thinking that a male is a jerk with no manners, I also have to give the benefit of the doubt. I start to think; maybe this guy doesn’t know, maybe he wasn’t raised to be chivalrous, or maybe some woman gave him an earful on how she can do everything herself because she’s an independent woman.

    I believe that women often abuse the word sexist so much that it often causes men to just steer away from the standards required of men from the 1950s and before. It may seem the less interaction, the better. But nonetheless, not everyone is sexist though I do acknowledge that sexism occurs. At the en of the day, I believe that education for men AND women is crucial regarding what sexism and benevolent sexism is and how these ideas and terms came about.

    • Kristiana,
      I totally agree with your comment that both men and women need to be educated in the definitions of benevolent and blatant sexism. I think that most of the sexism that occurs is because of a lack of education and understanding. Having men and women learn and discuss these issues is essential for positive change and understanding. Having education in the work place is especially important. When expectations are made clear from the beginning work can be more enjoyable and efficient.

  5. I agree with the article. Sexism still exists in many shapes and forms. Benevolent sexism is a thing, some men may be taught to that women are inferior and for that reason they must do things for women, or it might be that a man personally thinks of women. While we all believe that society has made progress in gender equality it will be a while before the traditional ideas of past generations truly leave society. For these reasons, we as women, need to educate ourselves and advocate for our gender in order to teach to educate others (male and female) and educate future generations.

    In the case, of men opening doors for women, I believe it is a two-way street. How can we ask for progress when we do not do things for the male population. One day I was entering the Student Center at school and a male student was behind me. I opened the door and held it open for him. He was in awe that I had done that. He even said “I am sorry. I just have not had the door held for me in a long time.” It was a situation that made me think. Does it really matter who holds the door for who? It is a small gesture that can make anyone’s day. I feel it is not something only men should do.

    Many men are taught to be chivalrous. Qualities like this are looked for by women and can be seen in social media with tags such as “Boys have Swag and Men have Class.” Things like this embed the idea of what a “good mannered man” is. Chivalry is something that can be taken out of content like it was stated in the article. Some women may feel that there is malintent when a man does something nice for women, like holding the door. There might be but it is not fair to judge men on chivalry when we as women are also marginalized and judged for not doing what society expects.

  6. I think one of the reasons that feminist have a bad name is for reasons like this. Every time a man does something nice for a woman her first thought should not be “sexism”. Granted, like it has been mentioned earlier, some of these traits are rooted in sexism but it does not mean that every man who holds the door for a woman is sexist. I think like Mary said we need to focus on the bigger issues in sexism not the small ones like these. If I were an outsider looking in I would not want to be categorized as a feminist because it looks like a bunch of nit picking at the smallest of things. If feminist want change and respect in my opinion who opens the door for who should not be such a big discussion that multiple class times and whole papers are written about it. There are arguably more important issues to worry about such as the wage gap that our time and energy would be better suited for. There is a saying that says “pick your battles” and I personally do not believe this is one worth picking. I agree with Jenna’s point in this post, many times it just comes down to having manners when a man holds a door for a woman. It is important not to let the little things consume our lives so that we can actually get change for the things that actually matter and can make good strides for female equality.

  7. Great post Jenna! I agree with you on so many things. I feel like there is always a constant divide between women and men, and society makes the distinction between the two even greater by assigning gender norms and applying words to normal human interactions. I think people are conditioned to think certain ways about certain genders. A man opening the door may be because he perceives the woman as weaker, but if that is so it is only because society has conditioned the man to think so. There is a film called Tough Guise that expresses how people constantly fall into gender norms. It is about how men are not allowed to show emotions the same way women are because of how society would perceive them of being too feminine, and how the only way they are truly allowed to express anything is through taking out their anger on someone else, typically through physical violence. If anything, I do not hard ill-will or bad feelings towards a man who is sexist, because I feel like discrimination against someone else based on something they were born with is just a way of releasing issues most likely held within. If anything, I think society should come together and change the norm and rules, by making a more equal system of living between women and men. A woman should be able to offer a man her seat on the bus if he looks tired and it should not be an atypical thing to do. A man should be able to get manicures and pedicures because he cares about his appearance and hygiene and he should not be automatically labeled as gay because he chooses to do so. In all honesty, I believe the best way to stop sexism from happening, or being perceived as happening, or being easily thrown around, is to erase stereotypical gender differences and let each person live their life the way they want, without fear of negative judgment or feedback.

  8. I grew up in Maryland and when I moved to Atlanta I noticed a striking difference in simple things like men opening doors for women and letting women on or off an elevator first. I’m a pragmatist so I think these behaviors are kind of absurd. Really, you’re going to make me navigate around you and make all these other people wait so that I get off the elevator first? Even when I hold a door open for men, they often stand there telling me to go through first. I’m always amused by their confusion.

    Little behaviors like these are clearly a result of social conditioning and they vary from region to region. I did at first find it find it charming that men act polite towards women in the South. As Jenna said, it’s extremely difficult to understand other people’s intentions. I don’t think that this behavior implies sexual discrimination or a belief that women are less capable. I think it’s just a superficial display of societal expectations. The thing that does bother me is that people with this idea of politeness treat men and women differently when there is no reason to do so. As others have said, if you’re going to be polite, be polite to everyone!

  9. While I agree that benevolent sexism can be difficult to pinpoint, there are times when one can and should use the word “sexist”. If you honestly believe something is benevolently sexist in context, you should speak up or try to have a conversation regarding your perception (along with most other women’s). There are things within all cultures that are considered to just be forms of manners and politeness. A man opening a door for a woman isn’t inherently sexist. It depends on the situation. I have opened doors for people who are older than me since I can remember. It is not out of condescension or thinking of the other person as being more frail than I, it just a common courtesy in our culture. When there is so much outright sexism holding women back, I believe benevolent sexism falls to the back of our minds. At this moment in time, it is not that important. With the changes that need to be made to encourage gender equivalence, I hope to see benevolent sexism diminish. Once people can appreciate that no one is better than another based on anything other than contents of character, it will be easier to approach the issues about existing benevolent sexism.

  10. I expect a man to hold the door open for me, open my car door, pull my seat out, etc. In my eyes, it’s not sexism. It is just being a polite gentleman. Now, as many commentators said before, these acts clearly came from sexist ideas from our past. But I do not feel it is condescending for my boyfriend to give me his jacket when its cold. I feel we sometimes read into things too much as new age women. We do need to eliminate sexist ideas such as a silent woman, or a “modest” woman. Those are gender stereotypes that need to be done away with.

  11. I agree with most aspects of this post, Jenna. In fact, some of the points, like holding open a door or being gentle, are common courtesies that men (and women) should do for all others.
    Like someone pointed out, it is complicated because we cannot always know for sure the intentions of the individual performing the kindness, but in some cases, it is safe to just accept the courtesy.
    The second point, on Dr. Brill, is not something I fully concede with. Yes, it is nice that she displayed a good work-family balance, but focusing on her family life still implies that she owes something to society for being a woman – being a wife and mother- and that only after she satisfies that “womanly obligation” could she pursue her other dreams.

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