No, chivalry is not dead – but it was about time it was

It is customary in many Western cultures for men to offer a range of special courtesies to women. This includes paying for dates, carrying heavy objects, pulling up chairs, opening doors, and allowing women to go first, even when the man was there first.

Although generally considered polite and even romantic, these acts of chivalry – where men are excessively courteous to women simply because they are women – have a dark side.

What does the research tell us?

Benevolent sexism

Psychologists call the paternalistic attitudes underlying these behaviors benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism involves the belief that men should cherish and protect women, and “put them on a pedestal.” Indeed, women are considered to be morally purer, weaker and in need of protection.

Although benevolent sexism has a positive tone, research has shown that people higher on these attitudes also tend to be higher on hostile sexism. Hostile sexism involves overtly negative and suspicious views of women – this is what people usually think of when they think of sexism.

While it may seem paradoxical that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are correlated, ambivalent sexism theory argues that benevolent sexism is reserved for “good” women who conform to traditional gender roles. Hostile sexism tends to target women who are seen as seeking to usurp power from men.

The negative effects of benevolent sexism

Research shows that there is a range of negative outcomes associated with benevolent sexism.

For example, one experiment found that exposure to benevolent sexist comments led women to perform worse on a cognitive task and to view themselves as more likely to be incompetent.

A more recent experiment revealed that benevolent sexist reactions lead women to display threat-like cardiovascular responses.

In the context of intimate relationships, men more susceptible to benevolent sexism were found to be more likely to provide addiction-focused help to their female partners, such as offering solutions that overlooked their partner’s skills and efforts. These women then felt less competent and less well regarded by their partners.

It can be more difficult to recognize this form of sexism because it cannot be measured by a pay gap or by the number of women in leadership positions. It happens in daily interactions between people, and often in private. People underestimate how harmful benevolent sexism is and overestimate how harmful hostile sexism is.

The seemingly positive tone of benevolent sexism may even be perceived by some as beneficial to women, but scientific research does not confirm this.

Why are women attracted to benevolent sexism?

Despite all the negatives, women tend to prefer caring sexist men. This preference is even stronger among women who have high levels of insecurities about their intimate relationships.

This preference for benevolent sexist men may be driven by women’s perception that they are warmer people. Recent research has found that women see benevolent sexist men as more attractive partners because they are perceived to be more willing to invest, although they also recognize them as condescending and undermining.

The preference for benevolent sexism may also be driven by women’s understanding that it offers an antidote to hostile sexism. This is supported by experimental research which found that women were more likely to endorse benevolent sexism when exposed to information suggesting that men hold negative attitudes towards women.

The Poisoned Chalice

So why are there so many negatives to something that is so broadly appealing?

One problem with benevolent sexism is the reinforcement of traditional gender roles about how women and men should relate to each other. It’s the same old problem that who we are or what we want should be predetermined by our gender rather than our own preferences and personalities.

But as the research above suggests, an even bigger problem could be that benevolent sexism has the ability to undermine women’s performance and well-being. There is an inherent condescension to benevolent sexism that sees women as less competent than men. That’s not to say that individual acts of kindness are a problem — but the double standards that drive them are a problem if they disadvantage one sex.

Perhaps the broadest implication of all this is that benevolent sexism promotes male agency and dominance and female passivity and subordination. Men play a greater role as providers and protectors, while women play the role of weak and dependent followers.

By rewarding submission, benevolent sexism is contrary to women’s power and a barrier to women’s rise to leadership roles. It can be an added challenge to be an authority figure when you are expected to be very agreeable and deferential.

Benevolent sexism allows men to have romantic relationships with women while maintaining male dominance in interpersonal relationships. This goes hand in hand with hostile sexism, which punishes women who challenge the status quo and seek gender equality. Benevolent sexism is the reward women get for being submissive to men, and this kindness depends on their conforming to traditional gender roles.

Achieving gender equality might mean sacrificing some of these perceived advantages. – The Conversation|Rappler.com

Beatrice Alba is a lecturer at Deakin University.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

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