What could be wrong with a gentleman opening a door for a lady? According to some social psychologists, such acts endorse gender stereotypes: the idea that women are weak and need help; that men are powerful patriarchs. Now a study has looked at how women are perceived when they accept or reject an act of so-called “benevolent sexism”* and it finds that they’re caught in a double-bind. Women who accept help from a man are seen as warmer, but less competent. Women who reject help are seen as more competent, but cold.
Across three studies Julia Becker and her colleagues presented dozens of German students with a vignette (either in prose or as a comic strip) in which a male office worker offers to help a female colleague set up a computer server. As he makes his offer, he says: “Oh, the network server, that’s so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you.” Some students read a version in which the woman accepts the offer; others read a version in which she rejected it, saying “I can do it. It’s not a problem for a woman”.
If the woman rejected the offer she was rated as more competent, but less warm (compared to a story version in which her reply wasn’t revealed). If she accepted the offer, she was judged as more warm, but less competent. These effects also influenced the participants’ decisions over her job suitability. If she rejected the offer of help she was judged less suitable for a care-home job that depends on emotional skills. If she accepted the offer then she was judged less suitable for a managerial position.
By contrast, men aren’t caught in the same double-bind. Other participants read a different version of the story in which a woman offered technical help to a man. In this case, participants judged the man as more competent, but no less warm, if he rejected the offer.
An important caveat was identified once the researchers began measuring the participants’ endorsement of benevolent sexism, as revealed by their agreement with statements like “Women should be cherished and protected by men”. The perception of an independent woman as competent but cold was only formed by those participants who endorsed benevolent sexism.
Another aspect the researchers looked at was perceptions of the help-giver. Here they found that advocates of benevolent sexism perceived a male help-giver as particularly warm and competent when his offer of help was accepted.
“Nowadays, sexist behaviour has become more subtle because of changing social norms, and patronising offers come in subtle guises,” the researchers said. “This exacerbates a woman’s dilemma about how to respond and increases the likelihood that she will be viewed as ‘cold’ if she declines paternalistic help.”
Becker, J., Glick, P., Ilic, M., and Bohner, G. (2011). Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t: Consequences of accepting versus confronting patronizing help for the female target and male actor. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.823
*There’s a lot of resistance to the idea of benevolent sexism. Find out what happened when lead author of this research, Julia Becker, appeared on BBC Radio Five (the column originally appeared in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society).