Benevolent sexism puts women off asking for help

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

-Further resources-
Podcast featuring the lead author of this study discussing the findings.
“Let me help you with that” – how women suffer from benevolent sexism.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

8 thoughts on “Benevolent sexism puts women off asking for help”

  1. Alternate theory: the study proves nothing about “benevolent sexism” and more proves that often, when you specifically bring up the notion that men are sexist, that when another woman expresses frustration towards what she perceives to be sexist men, said women feel a sense of hostility towards men, and are thus placed in a poor mood and/or do not feel like asking them for help.

    In other words, I don't believe that it's the actual so-called “benevolent sexism*” itself that put the subjects off asking for help, as much as it was the woman expressing that she believed it was sexism. If it was truly the act that made the difference, then both groups would have reacted the same; as they were both told of the same act; the only difference was the perceived motivation. The difference is important. One implies that the act is a threat, the other implies that a willingness to assume the worst about someone (that he's sexist as opposed to simply impatient) is a threat. I'm leaning more towards the latter.

    *Of the many ideas I've heard from feminists that I disagree with, #1 on the list has *got to be that holding the door open for a woman implies that she's weak. FFS, what man honestly believes that a woman can not apply a half pound of force and move open a door? The notion never even entered my mind until someone took offensive to it. It's not an assumption of ability, it's a show of respect for God's sake. The whole idea smacks of defensiveness and insecurity.

  2. hi Matthew, thanks for your comments. Just to note that the researchers deliberately compared an all-male and all-female remote research team. Women exposed to the benevolent sexism showed less help-seeking behaviour regardless of whether they were asking men or women for help. The researchers included this comparison to ensure that the women weren't simply shunning men, but were actually less inclined to ask for help regardless of where that help came from.

  3. There seems to be a simpler explanation that fits the results equally well, and that the researchers haven't ruled out. The participants weren't necessarily responding to sexism, but may simply have gotten the message that one should do things for themselves (which was present in the 'sexist' phone call but not the 'impatient' call). If so, you might expect to get the same results if the phone call was from, for example, the researcher's mom, who thinks she can't do anything for herself. You might also expect to see the same results from a group of male participants who overheard a similar call.

  4. When someone verbally expresses dislike with an undesirable behavior, especially if we agree with their assessment, we are more likely to dig our heels into the ground and to purposefully do the opposite.

    This has little to do with “benevolent sexism”, other than that the females in the study who responded as such would agree, after hearing the comment and if asked, that [people] should be able to do things for themselves rather than men helping them. That does not apply to other contexts however.

    We could set up a similar experiment with males or females and have the person on the phone say “People just don't take their time to make sure they have the right answer! After all they could be wrong.” and then measure the amount of second-guessing.

    The key here, as found in the title of the study is, “in the Context of a Dependency-Related Stereotype.” That's a pretty narrow context, with just as limited applicability.

  5. It's no wonder they're less likely to receive help when it comes to their physical and mental well-being. Plus, men are more likely to outlive women because of this.

  6. it would be interesting to know how these results would be effected if the said plumber was female.

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