Aife Hopkins-Doyle (University of Kent) about her research on sexism
As 2016 comes to a close, world events have reminded us of the incessant hostile treatment of women in society. Indeed, no one has reminded us more than President-elect Trump. His campaign was marred by accusations of misogyny, sexual assault and rape. He was recorded saying he “grabs women by the pussy” and, further used justifications of being “a star” for his apparent entitlement to women’s bodies. Unsurprisingly, he is currently accused of the sexual assault of 15 women, including a 13 year old girl. Trump also believes women should be “punished” for having abortions, and regularly reduces women’s value to that of their appearance, describing them as “fat” “ugly” and “dogs” (The list goes on here). But hostility is not the only type of sexism women experience. Trump also believes Clinton did not have “the look of a president”, is quoted as “wanting to help women” and telling female job applicants “they will make good wives”. Research findings reflect these sentiments - women are also less likely to be hired for a “male typical” job, they are more likely to receive help from others, even when they have not asked for any, and are disproportionately positively stereotyped as more communal and better suited to domestic roles. While these experiences disadvantage women, they are not seen as linked to “pussy grabbing” hostility toward women, nor are they perceived as sexism. But why is this?
In 1996, two American social psychologists, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, created the Ambivalent Sexism Theory (AST). The theory aims to explain the negative and positive treatment of women in society. AST proposes that sexism is composed of two inter-related parts, Hostile sexism, and Benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is a set of negative beliefs and attitudes toward women including that women are in competition with men, and seek to control men sexually and economically. Consider the negative stereotypes of the cold career woman, or seductive temptress as folk illustrations of hostile sexism. In contrast, benevolent sexism is a seemingly positive evaluation of women as more moral and refined than men. Women are characterised as “wonderful but weak”, and need to be cared for by their men. Stereotypes of BS women focus on the “doting mother” and “devoted wife”. It is a man’s job to take care of these women, romantically, emotionally and economically – this is a man’s prerogative. Like a lot of people, you might be thinking, what is so wrong with being appreciated as a woman, and being revered by your partner?
Well, despite benevolent sexisms positive tone, research has found it has many harmful effects for women. Most notably, agreement with benevolent sexism is associated with greater blame of rape victims , opposition to abortion – even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality , and the restriction of pregnant women’s behaviours . Further, when women actually experience benevolent sexism they perform worse on memory tests and problem solving tasks , and they monitor their bodies more and experience greater levels of shame related to their appearance . Most worryingly, benevolent sexism actually increases women’s perceptions that society is fair and equal , and reduces their intention to engage in political action (e.g. protest, lobbying) to achieve gender equality .
Yet regardless of the negative effects for women, many people do not perceive benevolent sexism as sexism, nor do they consider it to be related to hostile sexism. This is in direct opposition to research which shows that hostile and benevolent sexism are positively associated [8; 9]. Meaning the more a person agrees with hostile sexism, the more likely they are to also agree with benevolent sexism. In fact, this association is so strong it has been found in 19 countries worldwide . But, this positive association between hostile and benevolent sexism is counterintuitive - how can beliefs that are clearly negative (hostile sexism) be compatible with something that feels positive (benevolent sexism)? This is important because the automatic assumption that hostile sexism and benevolent sexism are incompatible may lead women to unwittingly go along with benevolent sexism, not identifying it as sexism, and therefore not challenging it.
Given the potentially harmful effects of misunderstanding sexism, my research examines people’s understanding of the relationship between hostile and benevolent sexism. What leads people to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between hostile and benevolent sexism? More broadly, do people have any understanding of benevolent sexism, or any sense of the psychological and political effects it is associated with? For example, we are interested in people’s understanding of benevolent sexisms negative consequences for women (e.g. reduced test performance, greater blame of abuse victims). We also wish to know whether people have an accurate understanding of the prevalence of sexism in society, e.g. can they accurately estimate how sexist others in society are? Finally, we want to better understand the barriers to criticising benevolent sexist treatment.
So far we, have completed research to try and answer the first question – why is it that people see hostile and benevolent sexism as incompatible? To examine this we asked online participants to complete a survey about men’s attitudes to women. Participants were presented with an imaginary man – Mike, who was seen acting in one of three ways. Either he acted in a hostile sexist way (e.g. “Sexually harassing women by ogling at them and catcalling”), a benevolent sexist way (e.g. “insisting on paying for his girlfriend’s meals”), or a non-sexist way (e.g. “playing tennis with his girlfriend”) toward women. Participants then rated how likely they thought the imaginary man was to agree with separate statements from a measure of perceived sexism. Statements measured hostile sexism, for example “women exaggerate the problems they have at work”, and benevolent sexism, for example “women should be cherished and protected by men”. Most importantly, participants were also asked to complete a scale rating how warm the man was toward women. We found that when people read about a man who acted in benevolent sexist ways (e.g. “insisting on paying for his girlfriend’s meals”) they thought he was less likely to agree with hostile sexist attitudes, and this was associated with the belief that he fundamentally likes and holds warm attitudes toward women. The reverse pattern was present for men who act in hostile sexist ways (e.g. “sexually harassing women by ogling at them and catcalling”) – these men are seen as less likely to agree with benevolent sexist attitudes, and were viewed as disliking women and acting cold toward them. Currently, we are trying to understand whether this association of warmth with benevolent sexism, influences wider perceptions of the effects of benevolent sexism.
This research contributes to our wider understanding of sexism and how it is perceived by others in society. Unlike other groups in society (straight and gay people, Christians and Muslims), men and women live in close proximity to one another, often forming partnerships and cohabiting. As such, sexism is unique type of prejudice, and failure to perceive benevolent sexism as discrimination is problematic. Research has shown that tolerance of benevolent sexism over time results in women’s greater support for hostile sexist attitudes. Through my research, I hope to raise awareness about benevolent sexism and the biases people experience when they meet others who hold such attitudes.
~Please reference: Hopkins-Doyle, A. (2016, November 23) Sexism - hostile or benevolent? Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com
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 Osborne, D., & Davies, P. G. (2012). When Benevolence Backfires: Benevolent Sexists' Opposition to Elective and Traumatic Abortion1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(2), 291-307. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00890.x
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