Benevolent Sexism

A new study reports that:

Men who open doors for women are as guilty of sexism as those who are rude to them… Psychologists found that a friendly or chivalrous attitude can mask chauvinistic and patronizing views because the men see females as weak creatures in need of their protection.

For more, see here.  And for philosophical analysis that anticipates these results, see Linda Bell’s “Gallantry” (1984).

7 thoughts on “Benevolent Sexism

  1. I recently experienced men opening doors for me. I don’t think it was intended to be sexist. It so happened that there were several days of very, very windy weather. Trying to push open especially heavy and tall doors agains tthe wind required I brace myself and lean hard into pushing. Each time someone was nearby and saw me struggling he helped. My husband also opens doors for me. He does this as a favor bc I hate touching public door handles. My rambling point is that it is completely ridiculous to say that a man opening a door is sexist behavior. I See it as polite. Just as I find a man standing when I enter a room or corn to table charming and respectful. Incidentally, I hold doors open for people–men and women.

  2. Context matters. For example, men regularly try to hold doors open for me (and other women) like bus doors…by standing in my way…when it’s pretty literally unnecessary (due to an automatic door-opening mechanism on the bus). They’re not doing this for men. I find *that* really annoying. Fine, open a door for me, thank you…but making my life actually harder by doing it? No thanks.

  3. @rachel that seems like a pretty uncharitable interpretation. Often well-meaning and polite people’s actions can inadvertently have the opposite and unintended effect. I, persoanlly, would take those small annoyances if it meant the a-hole going through the door before me didn’t let it slam on me. And you’re right, of course, they aren’t doing it for men. But…so? Frankly, we’re all better served by polite behavior–and would do well to generously interpret the behavior as such, as opposed to being annoyed by it.

  4. I agree with Anon that door-holding is simply polite, though it can be awkwardly applied to the point of being inconvenient (or even comical, as two people repeatedly step out of each other’s way only to step into each other’s way, until either laughter incapacitates them both, or one realizes the really useful thing is to stand fast).

    But I think the thing Anon mentions of men standing when one enters the room or comes to table is sexist. But saying that, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. What it put me in mind of was this in my own life: in the process of evolving from a vaguely religions, church-going child to an atheist adult, I attended for a period of time an Episcopalian church where I could not believe the magic but still enjoy tradition: the music, architecture, forms of service and ritual and connection to history were pleasing, but I didn’t hold to the beliefs which underpinned them. I can similarly see how one could enjoy some sexist traditions for the style of it, without holding to the sexist beliefs which engendered those traditions.

    It feels odd to me to be saying that sexism isn’t always bad, but I can see how it could be fine in cases where a sexist tradition doesn’t put an actual burden on one sex or the other, and is otherwise pleasing to the people involved. (This seems fraught with slippery slopes, however, unless there’s very good communication)

  5. If I understand the original study the article is based on, by Goh and Hall in Sex Roles (, men who displayed a greater tendency toward “benevolent sexism” as measured by the ASI were also more likely to exhibit certain types of friendly behaviors in a measured interaction with a woman. I have further questions about that study, but I am willing to acknowledge the basic idea that benevolent sexism can lead to behaviors that seem pleasant and thereby mask the underlying sexist attitudes of the person who engages in them.

    However, where is the “new study” that reports “Men who open doors for women are as guilty of sexism as those who are rude to them… Psychologists found that a friendly or chivalrous attitude can mask chauvinistic and patronizing views because the men see females as weak creatures in need of their protection.”? I don’t find anything like this. Am I missing the right study should be reading, or is this a case of a newspaper article completely distorting and exaggerating the actual findings of a limited piece of research?

    I hope it goes without saying that it’s a big leap between saying that benevolent sexism may mask certain kinds of sexist attitude and saying that holding doors open for women is generally a manifestation of benevolent sexism. Perhaps we can conclude that some unknown percentage of men who hold doors open for women – and women who enjoy having doors held for them, since in the U.S. benevolent sexism is nearly as common among women as men – are masking a sexist attitude behind this act of courtesy. Is this a problem, then? I’ve taken the ASI; my levels of benevolent sexism were low and I believe could be entirely explained by the fact that the questions are asked only in one direction: in other words, if I think men should treat women in a certain way and also that women should treat men that way, I’ll score higher for benevolent sexism because the test doesn’t ever ask me whether I have the SAME attitude for the other case. I think it’s absolutely wonderful when people, of whom a certain number are male, hold doors open for me, and I try to do the same for others whenever courtesy suggests it.

    The fact that this well-trod example surfaces when it had nothing or little to do with the original study, and that it’s the sort of thing for which “feminism” has become popularly known, is depressing. There’s a picture out there of angry feminism railing against harmless considerations like men holding doors open for women. I’d like to acknowledge the reality of benevolent sexism and think about how to address it without being hamstrung by that particular misconception about feminism.

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