Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Benevolent Sexism, Again

Melanie Tannenbaum has written again on benevolent sexism.  I'm not sure if she wrote the title of her piece too, but I like it:
"The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly..."
The notion that one can be sexist if one hasn't intended to be is still a big stumbling block for many people when it comes to acknowledging that they have engaged in something that is sexist (or racist or transphobic or homophobic). That a person can be sexist even if they thought they were, or intended to be, nice, seems to be completely unfathomable.

Although the conclusion that benevolent sexism is both "real and insidiously dangerous" is one that many readers of this blog already agree with as it is backed up by some actual evidence, I want to draw attention to the portion of Tannenbaum's piece where she notes that expressions of benevolent sexism often correlate with expressions of hostile sexism:
"In a later paper, Glick and Fiske went on to determine the extent to which 15,000 men and women across 19 different countries endorse both hostile and benevolently sexist statements. First of all, they found that hostile and benevolent sexism tend to correlate highly across nations. So, it is not the case that people who endorse hostile sexism don’t tend to endorse benevolent sexism, whereas those who endorse benevolent sexism look nothing like the 'real' sexists. On the contrary, those who endorsed benevolent sexism were likely to admit that they also held explicit, hostile attitudes towards women (although one does not necessarily have to endorse these hostile attitudes in order to engage in benevolent sexism)."
In my experience, those who treat women like delicate flowers also treat us like we're not fully human, or capable, in the way that men are.

A few years ago, for instance, I worked with a man who expressed benevolent sexism pretty frequently in interactions with female co-workers.  For instance, if we had to carry boxes from one office to another, he would say, "My policy is to never let a female carry something in my presence."  (Yes, using "female" as a noun. It's so often a "female," with these men, right?). Another time, I was appointed to chair a committee to work on a special project. He was also on the committee, and he joked, "She's a female, I have no doubt she can whip us into shape."

These are the kind of sexist subtleties in the workplace that are not readily-recognized by, I guess, people who aren't feminist, as digs.  To complain about them, to either the person saying them or to Human Resources, is to look like a "crazy person," oversensitive, or just looking for shit to get mad about.

But, the thing is, people who express benevolently sexist ideas are acknowledging that they view men and women as discrete, fundamentally different (or "opposite") creatures and that they, accordingly, treat men and women very differently.  When this type of thinking about gender is therefore moved from one context to another, their beliefs about gender will necessarily be expressed in different, oftentimes less "friendly" ways.

For, it turns out that although my male co-worker liked to joke about my prowess with respect to whipping people into shape in a committee, he wasn't super into actually acknowledging my authority or competence with respect to the project we were working on together.

At the first committee meeting, his behavior was disruptive, unprepared, and mansplainy. While other participants adhered to the practice of "following the meeting agenda," he would go off on too-long, tangential monologues about ideas that were irrelevant to the purpose of our project while being unreceptive to my (and others') attempts to get him back on track.  And, most tellingly, when he failed to submit his portion of the project before the meeting, he handed it to me 5 minutes before the meeting started and, in front of the group asked, "Can you go run copies of this?"  (I said no).

But, message received. A woman doesn't have to carry anything in his presence (except for his documents, I suppose), but she also can't or shouldn't try to lead in his presence either, because that's a man's job.

So, I guess the point here is that yes, benevolent sexism can look harmless. But when I see it, it's a good red flag that there's something darker lying just below the surface, waiting for the right context to reveal itself.

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