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Ambivalent Sexism

Is sexism still an issue worth worrying about, even in the West? Absolutely. Some of us may not realize that our actions, while benevolent in nature, may actually serve to enforce gender roles. What makes benevolent sexism even worse is that it leads to the victim’s inaction. Before we get into defining sexism as either hostile or benevolent, let’s reaffirm that sexism is still an issue in the West

First, most men still earn higher incomes than women for the same job (outlined in “Can an angry woman get ahead?“). Additionally, men’s trajectories lead them to careers with higher salary, status, and prestige (see “the glass slipper effect“). Regarding how pervasive these stereotypes are, just look at the following list and imagine someone you know who fills this role.

  • Stay-at-home dad
  • A bossy young boy
  • A female engineer
  • A female pilot
  • A male nurse
  • A woman, on one knee, proposing to a man

male nurse

Male nurse clip art is not easy to find!

I do not know any stay-at-home dads in my personal life, though I know they are out there. Next, the term “bossy” is rarely used to define a boys behavior. Bossy has been brought to the public’s attention recently as being a very offensive, sexist term reserved for young women. Also, I do work with at least one female engineer at my job (though she is in a different office). I’ve never seen a female pilot, and I haven’t met a male nurse. Finally, I’ve never seen a woman propose to a man while on one knee, but honestly I haven’t seen anyone propose to anyone else in person. I suppose the last example isn’t fair, but let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s hard for us to imagine these people because it’s outside the social norm. Social norms are powerful things, and when we deviate from it, we run into the problems outlined in “Can an angry woman get ahead?” However, we should be cautious to ensure our trajectory is the one we wish to follow, not the one created on our behalf by our predecessors. Simply acting due to tradition is an awful excuse for sexism!

Before we dive into Ambivalent Sexism's explanation - feel free to spend a few minutes taking this quick test! The ambivalent sexism inventory. Just answer honestly - everything is anonymous so no one will really know your answers other than yourself.

Ambivalent Sexism

Glick and Fiske (1996) created the first Ambivalent Sexism inventory, and much of the theories theoretical framework. Within their theory, two types of sexism exist – Hostile and Benevolent and three domains exist – paternalism, gender differentiation, and heterosexuality. Most of us can easily identify hostile sexism. Hostile sexism encompasses beliefs that one sex should try to control another, one sex is superior than another, and one sex is a sexual object for the other. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, embodies ideas like one sex needs to be protected by the “stronger” sex, one sex is more capable for tasks than another due to sex based traits alone, and one sex’s intimacy is necessary to complete the other’s life. I understand that imagining benevolent sexism in this way is a bit abstract, so let’s break out these ideas into examples. In these examples, I will refer to the discriminated party as a female and the sexist party as male. Sexism absolutely goes in both directions, but sexism research is typically male’s attitudes being forced on females.

Keep in mind, the effects of hostile sexism are obvious – subjugation, dominance, loss of power and agency. For benevolent sexism, we see similar outcomes, except the benevolent form of sexism leads to lower likelihood of action! Which means, benevolent sexism leads to the same loss of power in women, but it is also less likely to cause women to act to make empowering changes.

  • Paternalism
    • Hostile, believing a man needs to control a woman – If a man tells a woman, “I know what’s best for us,” or “I know what’s best for your.” In more subversive cases you may see a man controlling who a woman’s friends can be, “It makes me uncomfortable to you spending time with Bill. I trust you, but not him!” Frankly, this man doesn’t trust the woman’s judgement, even though he claims to do so.
    • Benevolent, believing a woman needs to be protected – Recently I was walking downtown with a friend of mine who was with his girlfriend. She said that she was cold, and he offered her his coat. I jokingly remarked, “you know some people might call that sexist!” I think the act of offering a coat is perfectly fine, however the justification that followed bothered me. I asked, “Hey, what if you were cold and she offered you her coat. Would you take it?” He said, “no, it’s my own fault for not being prepared.” His justification sounds as if his girlfriend can be expected to make these mistakes while he would not. Almost the same way we might treat a child, right? I pointed out this issue, but he never saw it my way. Regardless, let’s hope he doesn’t get to mad seeing this pop up on my blog!
  • Gender Differentiation
    • Hostile, believing men are superior to women – When a man gets paid more for doing the same work as a women, we could classify it as hostile gender differentiation. Even if a man expects less out of a woman, it could fall into this category. For example, what if a father has a daughter and son, but treated their achievements differently. When the son failed to make varsity men’s soccer team, the father was upset that the son did not work harder. When the daughter did not make varsity women’s soccer team, he suggested another hobby. When the father views one idea (a man engaging in sports) as serious, and another (a women engaging in sports) as mere recreation, we have hostile sexism.
    • Benevolent, believing sex-based traits lead to sex-based skill superiority – This type of sexism is fairly common, at least in my personal experiences. Have you ever heard something like…?

“Wow she good at (any skill set) for a girl”

“My wife is so much better with the kids than me. What can you expect from a regular ol’ guy like me?”

“Women are just so much better at understanding emotions and communicating!”

    • If we expect different skills and abilities out of someone based on sex-based traits, we might be justifying a sexist belief. There are real differences between males and females related to brain function and hormone influences, but people focus too much on our differences. Males and females have far more similarities than differences. Since we are so similar, the differences seem to stick out much more!
  • Heterosexuality
    • Hostile, viewing a woman as a sexual object – this is fairly clear. If a man is only able to describe his perfect female partner based solely upon their physical attributes, without a mention of personality, we might see some hostile sexist tendencies. This version of sexism is hard to shake since it is prevalent in media. Have you seen a show or film where a female lead character had no attributes beyond their youth and beauty, and the story revolved around a man “winning” her? In a summation from the Lindsay Ellis, “the Nostalgia Chick” (a media reviewer of YouTube fame) in the worst films you can replace a female lead with a physical object with no significant change to the story. Disney’s Aladdin falls into this category. Jasmine’s interaction with the story only revolved around who she would marry and who would ultimately win her. When a women is simply an achievement for the man, it’s a hollow, probably sexist story.
    • Benevolent, believing that romantic intimacy with a woman is required for the man to be complete. With this idea, some men might feel that a women is the barrier keeping the man from fulfillment and completeness. A woman is not the answer for a man. If two consenting adults wish to have a relationship and work to make it fulfilling, great! It is not the woman’s obligation, however, to make the man feel fulfilled. (Again, this could just as easily be a women feeling that they need a man to be complete, or a man needing a man, women needing a women… etc)
      • A real need? – We all feel the natural impulses for closeness and intimacy, but to treat these needs the same way we treat the needs for hunger and thirst is a bit far fetched. That does not mean relationships should be avoided, but they should not be seen as the answer to your life’s fulfillment.
      • An object? – At some level, is this treating someone as an object. Take this statement from the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory
        • ” Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores,” or “Men are incomplete without women.”

I think the ideas outlined by Glick and Fiske show how our seemingly positive and supportive behaviors can unwittingly be sexist! To review, paternalism is the act of treating women the same way one might treat children (assuming they lack responsibility and need constant protection). Gender differentiation is expecting different behaviors/aptitudes based solely on sex linked traits. Finally, heterosexual intimacy is the idea that a man can only be complete when he has a woman.

The question I want people to keep in mind is, “am I treating a woman this way because this is how a woman should be treated, or am I treating a woman this way because this is how people should be treated?”

It’s almost an offensive question, isn’t it? It’s almost like I’m having to point out that “women are people.” By all means, feel free to be offended! We must admit that the beliefs instilled in us by our culture can still lead us astray. Take ownership of your behavior!

My next post will review the outcomes of Benevolent Sexism which I eluded to in the introduction. Hostile sexism leads to conflict, while benevolent sexism leads to inaction. We will review research that puts this theory to the test!


  1. judygurfein says:

    Great piece! Modern-day sexism – like other -isms – is subtle.

  2. Ted S says:

    The male nurse stigma seems to be fading, at least in my limited experience. I know a few of them myself, and have seen plenty more. I will admit, I felt some mental feedback the first few times I heard men say that they were nurses by trade, but in my mind it is now a respectable, hard-earned position.
    There are a whole lot of other items on this page that I am embarrassingly guilty of. I had to constantly force myself to answer the questions on the sexism quiz. I knew what the answers SHOULD be, but I also knew what my answers were. My answer to the “women trying to control men” was an extreme, but I guess we both know why, don’t we?
    I got wordy there, but it was good to see another of your articles. Keep up the good work, old chap!

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