Monday, 8 August 2011

Let me help you with that ... How women suffer from benevolent sexism

What could be wrong with a gentleman opening a door for a lady? According to some social psychologists, such acts endorse gender stereotypes: the idea that women are weak and need help; that men are powerful patriarchs. Now a study has looked at how women are perceived when they accept or reject an act of so-called "benevolent sexism"* and it finds that they're caught in a double-bind. Women who accept help from a man are seen as warmer, but less competent. Women who reject help are seen as more competent, but cold.

Across three studies Julia Becker and her colleagues presented dozens of German students with a vignette (either in prose or as a comic strip) in which a male office worker offers to help a female colleague set up a computer server. As he makes his offer, he says: "Oh, the network server, that's so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you." Some students read a version in which the woman accepts the offer; others read a version in which she rejected it, saying "I can do it. It's not a problem for a woman".

If the woman rejected the offer she was rated as more competent, but less warm (compared to a story version in which her reply wasn't revealed). If she accepted the offer, she was judged as more warm, but less competent. These effects also influenced the participants' decisions over her job suitability. If she rejected the offer of help she was judged less suitable for a care-home job that depends on emotional skills. If she accepted the offer then she was judged less suitable for a managerial position.

By contrast, men aren't caught in the same double-bind. Other participants read a different version of the story in which a woman offered technical help to a man. In this case, participants judged the man as more competent, but no less warm, if he rejected the offer.

An important caveat was identified once the researchers began measuring the participants' endorsement of benevolent sexism, as revealed by their agreement with statements like "Women should be cherished and protected by men". The perception of an independent woman as competent but cold was only formed by those participants who endorsed benevolent sexism.

Another aspect the researchers looked at was perceptions of the help-giver. Here they found that advocates of benevolent sexism perceived a male help-giver as particularly warm and competent when his offer of help was accepted.

"Nowadays, sexist behaviour has become more subtle because of changing social norms, and patronising offers come in subtle guises," the researchers said. "This exacerbates a woman's dilemma about how to respond and increases the likelihood that she will be viewed as 'cold' if she declines paternalistic help."
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ResearchBlogging.orgBecker, J., Glick, P., Ilic, M., and Bohner, G. (2011). Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't: Consequences of accepting versus confronting patronizing help for the female target and male actor. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.823

*There's a lot of resistance to the idea of benevolent sexism. Find out what happened when lead author of this research, Julia Becker, appeared on BBC Radio Five (the column originally appeared in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society).

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

10 comments:

  1. Jack Aidley2:57 pm

    "Oh, the network server, that's so difficult and frustrating for a woman to grapple with. Let me do it for you."

    In what sense is that benevolent sexism?

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  2. Anonymous5:02 pm

    Yea, the statement is not framed neutrally at all. Also, I wonder if they used a control with a man in a similar position.

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  3. The researchers' choice of phrase "difficult for a woman" (or "difficult for a man" in the condition when the woman offered help) was chosen deliberately to ensure the offer of help was perceived as patronising by participants. The fact that women, but not men, were perceived as cold when rejecting such a patronising offer only reinforces the researchers' claim that women pay a price when they turn down offers of help from men. Based on the current findings, women would presumably be judged even more harshly if they turned down an offer that was less patronising.

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  4. It seems strikingly similar to the text-book classic double-bind: "you're pretty smart for a dumb [guy/gal]", that is a complement (esteem builder) mixed with a put-down.

    I'd say the mixed-message is the basis of problem.

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  5. Got to be honest, this seems like a pretty useless study. I'm very interested in looking at ways to put down chivalry (I hate it), but this study just totally fails to do so.

    In making the initial statement so overtly sexist and contrived (seriously, who would say "that's too difficult for a woman" and expect to be interpreted as anything but overtly sexist?!) the authors have just invalidated the point they were attempting to investigate.

    The linking radio show debate (or rather, rant about the mean men who who gave women their seats because they were worried the women might be pregnant) also goes some way to highlight why this study fails to address genuine benevolent sexism: benevolent sexism is a mindset in which one gender ought to be treated differently, but not necessarily negatively, based upon their gender alone. It's not explicit sexism, but implicit. In making the sexism in this study explicit they've failed to address the genuine phenomenon and have instead made a much easier straw man argument a form of explicit sexism over which there's very little debate.

    If they retried the study with the man saying "Would you like help with your computer" and the woman responding positively or responding negatively I doubt they'd find anything at all other than competence effects. I suspect it's the "A woman can do it" line that's lead to the 'cold' perception.

    Sorry, awful study on an interesting phenomenon. Kudos for bringing forth the study on this phenomenon, though. Chivalry is sexism and I'm strongly against it. It's a shame this study just utterly failed to assess chivalry in the way its actually expressed.

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  6. I just hope that all participants specifically noted that the guy is a twit.

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  7. Chip G9:16 pm

    Agree with those questioning the applicability--and the intro statement about holding doors is interesting but not applicable. I'd actually be interested a study reviewing their thoughts on the people after watching a seemingly neutral interaction. Such as a video of a man and woman walking up to a door. The man holds the door open--in one cell she walks right through and he follows, in another she holds the door above where he is holding so that he can go in, then she follows. Controls for and variances of height/weight/attractiveness would make for interesting interacting variables too. And reversed, where the woman holds the door. They'd be having a "neutral" conversation on a topic where competence is general across population--weather? discuss a feature on their phones?

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  8. Anonymous12:22 pm

    "Chivalry is sexism and I'm strongly against it"

    Chivalry is fun. I like holding doors open for women, and the majority of women I do it for like to have the doors held open for them.

    If a quick grin, eye contact and a "thankyou" really denotes "you sexist pig", then the entire basis of courtesy needs to be re-taught in schools and society.

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    1. Anonymous6:26 pm

      Thank you! I see nothing wrong with chivalry, and definitely do not feel it compromises my intellect/abilities.

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  9. Anonymous3:48 pm

    The truth is, men should also avoid holding doors open for married or involved women, especially if there is a jealous, suspecting husband or boyfriend is around because they could risk being beaten up or even arrested if they cross the line.

    In other words, as a man, you should not hold doors open for married or involved women, especially if their husband or boyfriend is around. Most husbands and boyfriends are not sane when another man is being chivalrous with their wife or girlfriend. They easily get jealous and will beat you up just to protect their wife or girlfriend from you. Therefore, you'll be cock-blocked. Try that if you go to France, for example. Most husbands and boyfriends will not get extremely jealous and violent like North Americans would but they will simply have a small talk, or un petit parler, with you and tell you to leave, or laisser, or they watch and appreciate it. It's like saying French women (and men) don't get fat but French men don't get extremely jealous and violent, either, when they see their wife or girlfriend with another man. French men are notorious for being cuckolds while French women will sleep with anything that moves or breathes.

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