Ambivalent Sexism

For those who want a little bit more about the research on women's roles being presented at the Christian Scholar's Conference I thought I'd point you to Shannon's blog where she informally describes her thesis research.

One of the things I enjoyed about chairing Shannon's thesis was getting to learn about the Ambivalent Sexism research, the theory that Shannon worked with in her study. Ambivalent Sexism Theory, as articulated by Peter Glick and Susan Fisk, suggests that while sexism is a form of prejudice it is marked by a deep ambivalence. That is, sexism is a unique and particular sort of prejudice. Generally, we think of prejudice as being characterized by strong negative feelings (and stereotypes) directed at a despised group. And, of course, many attitudes toward women are overtly derogatory. Glick and Fisk call this hostile sexism.

Although hostile sexism exists, few self-reflective people overtly express hostility toward women. Rather, what we tend to see is a more ambivalent form of sexism, what Glick and Fisk call benevolent sexism. Quoting Glick and Fisk (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 70, 491-512):

We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure).
The ambivalent nature of benevolent sexism stems from the fact that while a person might feel like he holds positive views about women the fact is, structurally speaking, these attitudes work to marginalize women and ensure that males remain in positions of dominance. That is, the overt content of the attitudes are "positive" and "flattering" but, at the structural level, these attitudes are sexist in that they keep the power differentials between men and women firmly in place. Glick and Fisk give an example:
For example, a man's comment to a female coworker on how “cute” she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional.
In general, benevolent sexism manifests itself in a paternalistic stance ("Men take care of women.") that is couched in notions of complementarity ("Men have leadership gifts and women have relational gifts.") and chivalry (i.e., the princess in the tower or the damsel in distress: Women wait and watch while we rescue/work/sacrifice/struggle for them). Overtly, these attitudes seem kind and noble but, structurally, they keep power firmly in the hands of men. It's a soft, sweet paternalism. A benevolent sexism.

To give more of the flavor of benevolent sexism as described by Glick and Fisk here are some of the items from the Benevolent Sexism subscale of their Ambivalent Sexism Inventory:
  • No matter how accomplished he is, a man is not truly complete as a person unless he has the love of a woman.
  • Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess.
  • Women should be cherished and protected by men.
  • Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores.
  • A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.
  • Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well being in order to provide financially for the women in their lives.
If you go to church a lot I expect you are very familiar with sentiments similar to these. Specifically, women are regularly praised in churches for qualities that "complement" men. And, unsurprisingly, the things women are "good at" tend not to be associated with positions of authority. Women are "good at" relationships and service, not leadership.

Given that benevolent sexism is so prevalent in churches Shannon was surprised to find out that little research had been done on the religious origins of benevolent sexism. Shannon's thesis--"Subtle Sexism in the Church: Religious Correlates of Ambivalent Sexism"--examined this topic.

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5 thoughts on “Ambivalent Sexism”

  1. And since women can't control themselves sexually, are shallower than men, judge men by their bodies rather than their skills and minds such as men who are sexily-dressed, are slobs, and abuse their power, they get labeled negatively and also get abused. This is still a man's world and it always has been.

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