Benevolent workplace sexism: are you guilty of it?


Certain stereotype-enforcing “compliments” create a double bind for women. Photograph: iStock

Certain stereotype-enforcing “compliments” create a double bind for women. Photograph: iStock


A well-meaning man can unintentionally undermine a female colleague with comments that miss the mark. Unfortunately, the problem is not uncommon. Psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske refer to it as benevolent sexism – a chivalrous attitude that suggests women are weak and need men’s protection, in contrast to hostile sexism (an antagonistic attitude towards women and a desire to control or dominate them).

While benevolent sexism might not sound that bad, Glick and Fiske describe how this kind of paternalism suggests that women need to be taken care of by men, and men who endorse this form of benevolent sexism are more likely to accept the mistreatment and harassment of women at work.

Moreover, research has also found that benevolent sexism makes it less likely that women will get candid feedback and challenging assignments, and more likely that they’ll get confidence-eroding offers of unsolicited assistance.

All of this undercuts women’s perceived competence and makes it harder for them to advance.

Relevant research on recommendation letters for job openings finds that women are more likely to be described as communal (using words such as “nice”, “friendly” or “helpful”), whereas men are more likely to be anointed as agentic (“intelligent”, “charismatic” or “determined”). The applicants described in communal terms were less likely to be hired.

Talking about appearance

Talking about a woman’s appearance in a professional setting, especially when you are trying to trumpet her job-relevant attributes, can also be damaging to her. Recent research found that female entrepreneurs’ looks were more likely to be described by venture capitalists than male entrepreneurs’ were – and this and other stereotypical perceptions of women hurt the level of funding they received compared with men.


Referring to a female colleague using her first name is also problematic. A study revealed that male doctors were far more likely to be introduced as “doctor”, whereas female doctors were more likely to be introduced with their first name.

At a minimum, men should try this as a mantra when advocating for women: “I will focus on competence, not warmth. I will describe her as self-reliant, not needing my protection. I will focus on her brain, not on her physical appearance. I will enhance her status with titles, not use informal language that diminishes her standing.”

Many men want to support women at work. So let’s stop using methods that backfire and instead use compliments that acknowledge, and don’t undermine, the competence, legitimacy and status of our female colleagues.

 Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

David Mayer is an associate professor of management and organisations at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M Ross School of Business


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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