People First HR Services

‘Benevolent’ sexism still common on job

Colleen Coates
While catcalls and overt comments aimed at female co-workers may have gone the way of the switchboard and manual typewriter, research shows that there is still sexism in the workplace. And while this brand of sexism is much more difficult to detect than what used to be so prevalent in the workplace, it is just as harmful.

It’s called benevolent sexism and while most of us do not even recognize it in our everyday lives, we encounter it on a regular basis.

On the surface, these subtle signs of sexism may appear to be harmless. It could be insisting on carrying a box or installing new software for a female co-worker. It could be a comment about how women are good at nurturing and care-giving. It could be assuming that a female will take minutes at the meeting, will shop for office supplies or will organize the staff potluck because “women are naturally good at that sort of thing.”

As you can see, this kind of sexism is quite ambiguous, so it’s easy to ignore them or chalk them up to just kidding around.

It should not be mistaken for the mostly well-liked admirable behaviour. But soon, these types of comments pile up and become a burden for the person on the receiving end.

Benevolent sexism has a long-range negative effect and impedes women’s advancement at work. Offering to assist female co-workers with traditionally male tasks generally reinforces the notion that women are weak and men are more competent.

When women shrug off these occurrences and get used to expecting help from their male colleagues, they may become unsure of themselves and doubt their ability to get the job done. At the same time, compliments on stereotypical female qualities (soft, emotional, mothering) underscores the false perception that women are not as suitable for powerful positions. In my July 7 article Firms need to develop talented women I spoke to this often controversial topic.

The bottom line is that subtle, benevolent sexism is dangerous because it may be covering more hostile aggression. When widespread, it signals that condescending comments, negative attitudes and broader forms of gender discrimination are acceptable, which they most certainly are not.

To a degree, men face subtle sexism too. It can include fielding “jokes” about being inept at planning the office Christmas party or being inadequately equipped to parent without assistance.

Think about the decision we are each faced with when accepting help with a complex task. If a female worker accepts help, she is perceived as friendly but lacking certain competence. If she refuses, however politely, she risks being viewed as cold. If a man accepts help, he can be seen as vulnerable but if he says no, does not suffer repercussions for expressing a desire to do things his own way. It’s just something to think about.

University researchers in the U.S. and Germany studied a group of 82 women and 38 men who each kept a diary of subtle sexist comments and situations. Over the course of one week, the participants observed an average of six incidents. They included:

— Comments that women are not as good as men in certain areas (math, cars, sports, leadership).

— Remarks about women as a group, e.g. too sensitive, easily offended or creating too much drama.

— Non-verbal expressions toward women (rolling eyes, looking down at with disdain).

— Assigning stereotypical tasks to women.

— Negative comments about “feminists.”

— Using derogatory terms (the b-word, “ice queen”) or making unwelcome remarks about a woman’s body or attire.

Not surprisingly, the study showed that the women perceived these incidents differently than the men, who tended not to view them as being as offensive as their female counterparts.

In fact, even after the diary exercise, the men in the study still were not as attuned to subtle sexism as women. The researchers said that for men, merely pointing out the incidents was not enough. They suggested it is important to change the perception of benevolent sexism as discrimination, so that it is viewed to be as serious and problematic as overt chauvinism.

On the plus side, the research found that when women were made aware of benevolent sexism and how to recognize it, they drastically reduced the self-doubt that hurts work performance.

The solution? We need to start the conversation so that we all become more conscious of subtle sexism and make it part of our cultural awareness. We need to discern when our words and actions hurt others, even if unobvious or unintentional. And above all, we need to learn not to discount it when someone undermines our confidence.


— With reporting by Barbara Chabai


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at




Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 H1