Spotting benevolent sexism in the workplace

Even if you don’t know the term, you’re probably familiar with its signs.

Spotting benevolent sexism in the workplace

Benevolent sexism is both insidious and common.

For adults in the 21st century, identifying discrimination at work should be a no-brainer, right? Well, maybe not. Social psychologists have recognized a form of sexism that’s both insidious and common: benevolent sexism. Even if you don’t know the term, you’re probably familiar with its signs.

Peter Glick, PhD, is a bias and discrimination expert who has researched sexism extensively. He explains that one of the most recognizable examples of benevolent sexism is “failing to give women challenging assignments or promotions under the assumption that it would be ‘too stressful’ or interfere with family commitments.”

Like all forms of sexism and discrimination, benevolent sexism harms people by emphasizing gender inequality.

Understanding benevolent sexism

Benevolent sexism differs from what’s called “hostile” sexism as it very often seems well-intentioned or harmless.

For example, a manager exhibiting hostile sexism doesn’t promote a woman on the grounds that a women can’t do the job. By contrast, a manager demonstrating benevolent sexism doesn’t promote a woman believing that the new role may be too stressful for a mother with a young baby at home.

“Benevolent sexism characterizes women as wonderful but weak, needing men’s protection and provision,” explains Glick. “It causes patronizing behavior toward women such as overhelping, ‘mansplaining,’ and restricting them from stressful or ‘dangerous’ activities."

Benevolent sexism essentially applies what some might consider positive stereotypes of women—mothering, caring, delicate—to the harm of a woman’s professional development.

How leaders can address benevolent sexism

This form of bias is found in all kinds of jobs, from the construction site to the corporate ladder. And in every example it is harmful and misguided. “Benevolent sexism undermines women,” says Glick.

To stop it in the workplace, begin by removing any assumptions based on gender. “Don’t assume a woman is less ambitious, or cannot handle honest criticism or challenging work,” advises Glick.

If you supervise or mentor women, ask them to share their goals with you. Help them develop a plan to reach their objectives. Include specific training, certifications and positions. Be certain performance reviews center on an employee’s work, not her personality.

Also, be mindful who you ask to organize lunch or order coffees. Assuming that your female staff are best suited to play host or run errands is yet another way that stereotyping can undermine women’s professional development. While Penelope’s grabbing lattes, Peter is likely back at his desk getting further on the task at hand.

Avoid focusing on an employee’s appearance. Sure, a compliment on a new blouse may feel harmless, even kind. Over time, however, these superficial comments detract from substantive professional assessments.

10 ways to stop everyday sexism

Do your part by following these tips:

  1. Identify and examine examples of gender stereotypes.
  2. Review how sexism is affecting your colleagues, staff, and customers.
  3. Focus your feedback on capability, not appearance.
  4. Don’t consent to sexist words or actions by staying silent when you notice them.
  5. Call out unacceptable actions.
  6. Allow for equal contributions by men and women at meetings.
  7. Check whether you are making assumptions based on a person’s gender.
  8. Don’t use language that reinforces gender biases—for example, “man up.”
  9. Ensure high profile initiatives and task forces feature women.
  10. Distribute administrative work and errands equally among male and female staff members.

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