If a man opens the door for a woman on a date, is he just being a benevolent sexist?
It’s a complicated question to answer, but two psychologists from the Iowa State University and VU University Amsterdam, argued some women actually prefer men who are described as these types of “sexists.”
“Some say that women simply fail to see the ways benevolent sexism undermines them because they’re misled by the flattering tone of this brand of kindness. Psychologists have even suggested that benevolent sexism is more harmful than overtly hostile sexism because it is insidious, acting like ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,'” authors wrote in The Conversation.
“As social psychologists, we had reservations about these conclusions. Aren’t women sophisticated enough to be able to tell when a man is being patronizing?”
The authors explained there is no previous research that suggested women failed to recognize what benevolent sexism looked like or that it could be patronizing and undermining. “Given our backgrounds in evolutionary theory, we also wondered if these behaviours were nonetheless attractive because they signaled a potential mate’s willingness to invest resources in a woman and her offspring.”
Where did ‘benevolent sexism’ come from?
The term itself was developed in 1996, the authors noted, adding that sexism wasn’t always “openly hostile,” and opening car doors or paying for a meal was always a signal a woman needed help.
“According to studies, women who acquiesce to this behaviour tend to become increasingly dependent on men for help. They’re more willing to allow men to tell them what they can and can’t do, are more ambivalent about thinking for themselves, are less ambitious and don’t perform as well at work and on cognitive tests,” authors continued.
Natalia Juarez, a breakup and divorce coach based in Toronto, argued that “benevolent sexist” may not be the best word to describe these type of men.
Claire AH, a Toronto-based matchmaker said in traditional gender roles, some women see value in men who want to “invest.”
“Regardless of whether we’re looking at it from an evolutionary perspective or just because they want to know that a potential partner is going to put stock in their relationship,” she said. “There are a lot of interesting psychological inferences that can be made here, but you can also take this desire at face value, which is useful.”
Kindness or manipulation?
But researchers also wondered if this benevolent sexism was either just kindness or manipulation. Juarez said it is hard to pinpoint exactly why someone may be chivalrous, and traditionally, dating coaches would encourage men, for example, to pay for the first date or open doors.
“It’s effective and it builds attraction,” she continued. “For some, it feels good to feel like ‘a man or woman’ and at the same time, not forgetting people can also take care of themselves. It’s not coming from a place of need.”
She adds in the current #MeToo climate, heterosexual men, in particular, are unsure how to act around their dates and they often don’t know if they should be chivalrous.
“I think intent is a hard thing to prove when it comes to benevolent sexism,” Claire added. “Some people may be doing it purposefully to ingratiate themselves to a prospective partner, but others may think it’s a genuinely nice thing to do. Beyond the potential for manipulation, I see the real trouble emanating from what benevolent sexism does for women’s self-concept and autonomy.”
Staying on the same page
And whether women like this type of benevolent sexism or not (researchers argued some do), both experts agree it’s about being on the same page.
Juarez said not many relationships are 50/50 — either people divide up tasks and take them on as their own or they prefer doing one thing over another. “Each couple needs to navigate this.”
She adds women who like men who pay for their meals or open their doors, for example, shouldn’t feel less empowered. “For men and women, it really just is kindness. It’s a feel good and it just feels special.”
“You ultimately decide how much you buy into traditional gender roles, which you will interrogate and develop over time,” Claire explained. “The key is to find someone who is on the same page as you, or is at least open-minded to understanding and respecting your interpretation.”