We’re in trouble if women are going to treat fluent conversationalists, good listeners and warm smilers as crypto-sexists

Some behaviour patterns may warrant suspicion, but ‘benevolent sexism’ is going too far

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The Independent Online

I’m sorry to break this to you, old boy, but you’ve been rumbled. Your footling attempts at gallantry towards the ladies has been revealed as the nasty, condescending thing it is: Benevolent Sexism.

Did you smile when chatting with that woman? Give her encouraging nods, let her talk without interruption, and ask her to go first through a doorway? Who do you think you’re kidding? You were just lulling her into a state of non-alertness to your evil plans for her downfall. Admit it: you’re about as gallant as Bluebeard.

A new project, whose findings are published in Sex Roles magazine (I get it for the crossword) followed 27 pairs of American male and female students as they met for the first time. They worked out how sexist the men were by having them fill in a questionnaire, then monitored their behaviour with “word count software” and by reporting “non-verbal cues” such as smiling. And they concluded that being friendly and chivalrous can mask Benevolent Sexism in all its chauvinistic horror.

One of the project authors, Mr Jin Goh, said benevolent sexism was “insidious… one of the driving forces behind gender inequality”. Another, Professor Judith Hall, called it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing… These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society, because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing and harmless.”

She’s right, of course. And do you know what else looks welcoming, appealing and harmless? Friendship. Politeness. Good manners. Putting people at their ease. All those things your parents taught you about how to get on with people (but not how to get off with them). And it’s not the finest prescription for a happily integrated society if women are told to treat fluent conversationalists, good listeners and warm smilers as crypto-sexists.

 

Some behaviour patterns may warrant suspicion. Compliments come freighted with dodgy assumptions. Telling a woman she has beautiful eyes/hair/lips is incontrovertibly sexist because it’s drawing attention to her body as if you’re inspecting livestock. Complimenting her earrings/pendant/ Louboutins is borderline-sexist because it means you’re checking out her face/chest/legs too closely. But complimenting her PowerPoint presentation? Her summing-up for the defence? Should she be on her guard in case you secretly mean: “It’s amazing that someone in possession of ovaries knows how to do that”?

To be fair to Goh and Hall, their survey is a refinement on a 19-year-old thesis. In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske wrote a paper about “ambivalent sexism”, saying there are two kinds of sexist attitudes and behaviour. Hostile sexism is explicitly negative to women; but benevolent sexism, while positive on the surface, reinforces gender stereotypes by inviting women to display “behaviours typically categorised as pro-social (e.g. helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g. self-disclosure)”. In other words, you can spot a benevolent sexist because he’ll try to appeal to the maternal side of the woman he’s talking to, or encourage her to chat about herself.

Oh please. Two decades ago, academics suggested that to idealise women as nurturing, emotionally sensitive and naturally protective only reinforced their subordinate status to men. Now we’re told that gallantry towards women can be construed as just as sexist as outright rudeness.

Can’t we just encourage both sexes to be friendly and polite to each other without accusing either of concealing a subtext? And if a subtext develops during male-female interactions, can we not leave them to it, rather than moralising about the rights and wrongs of their attitudes?

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