What It Means To Experience 'Benevolent Sexism' — And How To Fight Back

Benevolent sexism represents gender evaluations that may appear subjectively positive but are not.

Last updated on Jul 26, 2023

women protesting benevolent sexism Jacob Lund, sunnyrabbit, WiStudio Elements, Olena Matts, and iftitart via Canva

Did you know there are several forms of sexism in the world? Studies about sexism indicate that it has two components. One is hostile sexism and the other is benevolent sexism.

When discussing discrimination between sexes, we usually talk about hostile sexism, which reflects overtly negative evaluations and stereotypes about gender. Some hostile sexism examples include that men are stronger or more reliable than women, or that women belong in the kitchen. But seldom do we talk about benevolent sexism.


What is benevolent sexism?

The term originated in a 1996 paper entitled "The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism," written by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, who were exploring the concept of there being two types of sexism in the world: hostile and benevolent sexism. Together, they form ambivalent sexism.

Benevolent sexism represents gender evaluations that may appear subjectively positive. But, in reality, they're damaging to people and gender equality on a broader scale. The concept speaks to women not as derogatory or unintelligent beings, but views women as fragile, weak, and sensitive.


For example, women returning from maternity leave are given less challenging work due to the assumption that they have more responsibilities at home. This may seem kind, but it also may make their work less competitive and therefore slow or even stop their progress toward advancement.

Not only that, but research shows that it can deeply impact the mental and psychological health of both men and women. For women, it may lead to internalized feelings of dependency and self-doubt, while men may develop a sense of entitlement and superiority, both of which can hinder individual growth and perpetuate gender inequalities.

Of course, hostile sexism is wrong — but so is sexism that lacks malicious intent.

RELATED: What Happened When I Stopped Ignoring Sexist Comments For A Week


Why is benevolent sexism problematic?

Benevolently sexist statements may not appear harmful at first, but they carry underlying implications that women are delicate and dependent beings requiring constant "protection." While such notions might be perceived as positive by some, they can lead to the reinforcement of damaging stereotypes, particularly for women striving to excel in male-dominated professions and environments.

When we refer to benevolent sexism, we are talking about seemingly positive attitudes or gestures towards women that, upon closer examination, reveal a paternalistic and condescending undertone. These statements may come across as caring and chivalrous, intending to praise or support women.

However, the underlying message suggests that women need special treatment due to their perceived vulnerability and fragility.

The problem lies in the way this type of sexism reinforces traditional gender roles, perpetuating the belief that women are inherently less capable or suited for certain roles or activities. By associating women with qualities like fragility and sensitivity, it can lead to the dismissal of their abilities in professional settings and discourage them from pursuing careers in male-dominated fields.


In male-dominated industries or workplaces, women often face the burden of disproving these stereotypes to be taken seriously, hindering their career progression and overall professional development. This unfair bias can lead to a hostile work environment, where women may be overlooked for opportunities, promotions, or equal recognition.

To achieve true gender equality, it is essential to recognize and challenge benevolent sexism alongside more overt forms of discrimination.

Promoting a culture that values individuals based on their skills, qualifications, and contributions rather than their gender is crucial in breaking down these damaging stereotypes and providing equal opportunities for everyone. It is essential to encourage diversity and inclusion in all fields to create a more equitable society.

What does benevolent sexism look like in a subtly misogynistic workplace?

Such supposedly good-natured sexism occurs when someone says something that seems supportive and positive, but it's based on traditional archaic gender stereotypes.


It often goes unnoticed because, unlike hostile sexism or other obvious forms of discrimination or biases, it's often smeared with consciously good intentions.

The deliverer, recipient, and possible bystanders may see it in that positive light. So, it does make you wonder how something so lovely and complimentary can feel so wrong.

When comments focus, for example, on an author’s appearance instead of the quality of their work, they can feel wrong.

RELATED: Men Who Smile At Women Are Sexist, Says Science

Even though such remarks can sometimes feel good to hear, they can also cause unease, especially when one is keen to draw attention toward their work rather than personal attributes such as gender or appearance.


For example, Sarah receives compliments from her male colleagues about her appearance and how "nice" it is to have a woman on the team of a male-dominated engineering company.

This emphasizes that women shouldn't be in their profession since they hardly have them around.

Another example, Sarah's colleagues frequently offer to help her with tasks they assume she might find difficult or physically demanding.

Benevolent sexism can be disorienting because it may appear supportive while simultaneously reinforcing and extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles, responsibilities, and capabilities.

It maintains gender inequality through the idealization of stereotypical qualities in women, such as nurturing or being neat. Focusing on qualities that hold less social power and capital affords men the means of seeming to offer support to women while still maintaining traditional gender hierarchies.


Many women who are on the receiving end of such sexism tend to experience a 'double bind'.

The fake complimentary tone implies that perpetrators are often seen in a positive light and are unlikely to be labeled sexist.

On the other hand, women who call out such forms of sexism are often judged negatively, being perceived as cold or having a chip on their shoulders. Hence, due to its sheer nature, it often goes unnoticed or unchallenged.

Studies show that this form of sexism negatively influences women’s success and well-being.

For example, women got fewer questions right on a problem-solving test when the tester expressed such attitudes towards them. It appears their impaired performance created self-doubt about their competence.


The negative consequences can persist in subsequent situations, extending the implications of a single sexist encounter into new experiences and tasks.

The findings suggest that if women receive sexist feedback — even if it's consciously well-intentioned — they may feel as though they cannot meet the demands. Women who received such feedback felt less skilled afterward than women who did not.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Recognize And Fight Sexism In The Workplace

Of course, a true woman leader’s job is to rise above this and it's important to create that awareness. This is a callout to everyone to recognize disguised discrimination and its underlying damaging effects.


How To Deal With Benevolent Sexism at Work

1. Understand that it's OK to feel offended.

Hearing discriminating and degrading "compliments" at work is not fun. Feeling angry, hurt, or frustrated is entirely reasonable.

Your feelings don't need to be ignored or suppressed. However, many people choose to ignore them and avoid responding. Instead, try practicing radical candor and raising awareness to prevent its recurrence.

2. Expose the elephant in the room.

Confidently explain why you were troubled by the comment and how it reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and could hurt the team’s morale. Articulate clearly that such remarks are inappropriate or not appreciated.

You don’t always have to call out such behavior at the moment. Take the time to organize your thoughts.


3. Stand up for others.

Everyone can jump in to rescue coworkers when they are targeted.

For example, if someone comments about a fellow lady coworker, "We are fortunate to have her on the team to keep us organized. We need a mom around here," you could counter by highlighting her accomplishments and skills, saying, "We are all adults and can manage ourselves, but I do know that her efforts last year were responsible for increased revenue."

Publicly highlighting others’ accomplishments can help quell attempts to undermine their credibility subtly.


4. Educate others.

Engage in conversations that promote awareness about benevolent sexism and its negative consequences. Encourage discussions about gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in team meetings or through diversity training sessions.

By educating others, you can challenge preconceived notions and foster a more empathetic and respectful work environment.

5. Seek out a support network.

Reach out to colleagues, mentors, or HR representatives who can provide support and guidance in handling benevolent sexism. Discuss your concerns with someone you trust to gain different perspectives and develop strategies for addressing the issue effectively.

Having a support network can help you navigate challenging situations and strengthen your resolve to promote a more equitable workplace.


6. Lead by example.

Be a role model for gender equality in the workplace. Recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of all team members, regardless of their gender.

Encourage diversity and inclusion initiatives within your team and support the professional growth of your colleagues, fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and equal opportunities.

As we move forward in building and living in a more diverse and acceptable world, discrimination in all its forms, whether overt or hidden, must be eradicated.

RELATED: This Simple Response Shut Down The Sexist Guy Where I Work — For Good

Bhavna Dalal is a master-certified executive coach MCC ICF, speaker, and author of 'Checkmate Office Politics'. She helps people develop their leadership skills, including executive presence, strategic thinking, influencing and networking, and women leadership. Her work has been featured in Forbes India, The Pioneer (India), Forbes Japan, and Fortune India.