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Benevolent Sexism

Possibly an extension of paternalism, benevolent sexism, and his ugly brother, hostile sexism, have become a subject of much study.   And then there is the stepbrother, ambivalent sexism, to add to the mix.

Mentioned in Sheryl Sandberg's best seller Lean In, it is a topic that is definitely gaining momentum among women in business.    The fact that it is seen as higher in people in traditional marriages (man being the major breadwinner) is very interesting, particularly as the use of the word people is deliberate, both men and women in traditional marriages, are often seen as being benevolently sexist.

Melanie Tannenbaum's article has received a lot of commentary, and both the article and the comments are well worth reading.  Because it isn't simple, most times telling a woman she looks great is just a compliment!   But there are times when the line gets crossed.

At a recent talk I gave, a young woman asked how she should handle being patronised, because she had achieved something that was traditionally seen as in the male arena.   Comments from the men included "Well, if she can do it, it must be easy".   She did receive a lot of congratulations, too but she clearly feels that the achievement has been a little tarnished by the reactions.

Over the years in business, I have also noticed a few differences in the questions I am asked about the company I manage, compared to men in similar positions.   I attend many functions, and we swap business cards, as you do.   As soon as people read my card, and see that I am in the C-Suite (one of my least favourite new buzz expressions), they start to try and pin down the size of the company.   While asking annual turnover is one of the questions, how many employees seems to define it for my questioners.  I am sure it is possible that men do get asked the same questions, too, but I have not observed it!

It is also the compliment, or acknowledgement, with a note of surprise in the voice.   Many of the more high powered women I know, comment that this is pervasive.    You have to develop a sense of humour around this, and just say thank you.

While hostile sexism is easy to recognise, and counter, benevolent and ambivalent sexism are much more difficult to handle.

You can start to come over as "whiney" and "difficult" because what is being said sounds positive.   And men suffer from it, too.   Rikki Rogers has written a very interesting article "Woman are kind, and men are strong...." which outlines how both sexes are damaged by gender generalisation.

One of my favourite examples is the Yvonne Brill obituary.   She was a rocket scientist whose press obituary focused on her maternal and culinary skills.   The Broad Side wrote a spoof obituary for Albert Einstein, using the same method.   While I am sure she loved being a mom and a great cook, the reason she was being featured in the newspaper was for her science expertise, which was treated as an afterthought.

Its all about striking the right balance, both in how we live and how we are thought of in the work place.

Try for a light, but firm, touch when confronting benevolent sexism, but do confront it.  It needs to be in the open if women are to continue advancing their careers and equalising the pay gaps.

Links, References and Notes
Rikki Rogers
Melanie Tannenbaum
The Broad Side
Sheryl Sandberg


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