Benevolent sexism describes insidious behaviours and beliefs that reinforce the idea that women are less capable than men and need their help. It’s a controversial idea. It’s not always clear if an act, such as a man opening a door for a woman, is simply polite or an example of benevolent sexism. Another issue is whether or not benevolent sexism is harmful. A new study led by Juliet Wakefield claims to show that exposure to benevolent sexism can put women off asking for help. If true, it’s a finding that has obvious implications for the workplace, especially in contexts where health and safety could be compromised.
Eighty-six female undergrads arrived one at a time at a psychology lab for what they thought was an investigation into sex differences in reasoning and problem-solving. A female research assistant welcomed them and explained that they’d be interacting with a remote research team via computer. She then went and sat behind a partition in the same room. The three-person remote team were either all male or all female (this was clear from their names), and they proceeded to ask some basic questions of the participant via the computer.
Next, the research assistant’s mobile phone rang. It was obvious from her end of the conversation that it was her male plumber “Joe”. He’d moved some items in her house without asking – an act that the research assistant blamed either on his impatience or his sexist beliefs. After her call, the research assistant apologised to the participant, either saying “Sorry about that, my plumber is so impatient” or “Sorry about that – my plumber is such a typical man – he thinks that women are incapable of doing anything on their own!”.
After this, the participants began a 90-second anagram challenge on the computer. When the time was up, they had the chance to request help from the remote research team for any items they hadn’t solved. They also answered questions about their mood.
The key finding is that participants exposed to the story about the sexist plumber asked for less help on average, compared with participants who were told the plumber was merely impatient (they sought help with 48 per cent vs. 56 per cent of unsolved items). This held regardless of the sex of the remote research team (the source of the help). Another finding was that for participants exposed to the sexist plumber story, the more help they sought, the worst their mood. Conforming to the stereotype of the needy female appeared to make them feel rubbish about themselves.
“All in all,” the researchers concluded, “our findings underline the point that the benevolent sexism in everyday banal interactions can be consequential for women’s emotions and behaviour, and is therefore anything but banal.”
Critics may feel that the explicit view to which some of the participants were exposed – that “women are incapable of doing anything on their own” (emphasis added) – was not particularly subtle; that the results therefore say more about out and out sexism rather than benevolent sexism. It would also have been preferable to include a third condition in which the participants were not exposed to any overheard phone conversation.
Wakefield, J., Hopkins, N., and Greenwood, R. (2012). Thanks, But No Thanks: Women’s Avoidance of Help-Seeking in the Context of a Dependency-Related Stereotype Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36 (4), 423-431 DOI: 10.1177/0361684312457659