The Real World

August 2011
The Psychologist, 24 (8), 563.

A few weeks ago, Julia Becker from the Phillips University of Marburg, Germany was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 PM program about her studies of benevolent sexism.

The term benevolent sexism was introduced by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske some 15 years ago and is an important concept because it points out that discrimination does not always come with a hostile face. Men can keep women in their place by showing all the kindness and the support that are due to those who cannot fully look after themselves. They can maintain women’s dependency as much by smiling as by snarling at them. It is precisely this positive surface that makes benevolent sexism so hard to challenge. However, a body of empirical evidence demonstrates that benevolent sexism is regularly associated with opposition to measures that challenge gender inequality. As long a gentleman opens the door for you why worry that the boardroom door remains resolutely locked?

Dr Becker spoke powerfully and engagingly about the topic. She stressed that the issue was not about holding doors open or giving up one’s seat in public places – such consideration and politeness is to be applauded. The problem is the assumption that women in particular need these courtesies simply because they are women and not because of a specific need – because they have a child with them, or heavy shopping bags. That, after all, could be true of men as well. She also acknowledged that, faced with a single instance, it can be very hard (if not impossible) to tell if an act is an instance of generic politeness of one of benevolent sexism. There was nothing dogmatic or shrill about her claims.

In many years of listening to PM – a program of which we are big fans – we have never heard what happened next. Becker’s comments were systematically ridiculed for about 10 minutes. This centred  on a mock interview with a flimsily disguised fellow presenter who regularly opened doors and gave up his seat to women. When asked whether he did the same for men he said no. He first explained this by saying it was how he was brought up and backed this up with the original argument that you can never tell if a woman is pregnant – and it would be highly insulting to get up for someone who you thought was pregnant and turns out just to be fat – so it is easiest to get up for all women.

Now here was something truly worthy of ridicule. However, rather than pick him up, the rest of the piece consisted of various testimonials, including from the presenters themselves, of just what a wonderful old-fashioned gentleman this ‘interviewee’ was.

The ridicule continued on the Friday in the weekly PM letters slot. Julia’s interview received more letters than any other story. The insulting tone was set when the presenter referred to ‘that woman from some University in Germany – I couldn’t be bothered to look up which one’. The insults continued in every single letter that was read out – all of which were negative and almost none of which engaged with the substance of Julia’s arguments. She was, they asserted, against politeness. She wanted to make our society brutal and unkind. She was the problem and those gentlemen she attacked were to be preferred any day.

Glick and Fiske point out that benevolent sexism co-exists with hostile sexism. However, as Mary Jackman points out in her classic text, The Velvet Glove, hostile sexism tends to be reserved for women who challenge their dependent status. The PM presenters may have thought that they were demolishing Julia’s arguments about the significance of benevolent sexism. But rather than be outraged by their response, perhaps we should thank them for demonstrating so powerfully the timeliness of her work.