It’s not bad to say a woman is pretty, or to help her open a door, is it? It can be, when it is benevolent sexism.
A recent paper by Julia Becker and Stephen Wright details even more of the insidious ways that benevolent sexism might be harmful for both women and social activism. In a series of experiments, women were exposed to statements that either illustrated hostile sexism (e.g. “Women are too easily offended”) or benevolent sexism (e.g. “Women have a way of caring that men are not capable of in the same way.”) The results are quite discouraging; when the women read statements illustrating benevolent sexism, they were less willing to engage in anti-sexist collective action, such as signing a petition, participating in a rally, or generally “acting against sexism.” Not only that, but this effect was partially mediated by the fact that women who were exposed to benevolent sexism were more likely to think that there are many advantages to being a woman and were also more likely to engage in system justification, a process by which people justify the status quo and believe that there are no longer problems facing disadvantaged groups (such as women) in modern day society. Furthermore, women who were exposed to hostile sexism actually displayed the opposite effect – they were more likely to intend to engage in collective action, and more willing to fight against sexism in their everyday lives.
Ah. So if we really wanted to twist those words around, the assholes are actually doing women a favor, by motivating them to fight harder for their self-interest. Good for you, guys!