On the Social Psychology of Sexism

As somebody interested in gender equality in CS, one thing that’s proved quite illuminating for me is to read up on the psychology of sexism. Why does sexism persist in society? What social and psychological structures keep it in place?

Sexism in some ways is unlike other forms of discrimination. When it comes to race, or class, or disability, the social psychology literature will frequently talk about social distance. But when it comes to women, men “can’t live without ‘em” [1] – and so things tend to be a bit different.

Ambivalent Sexism

It turns out that sexism has two faces: good old hostile sexism – and the more palatable benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is the notion that women are wonderful, caring, nurturing and beautiful creatures – and so must be protected and provided for. (Note the “creatures” – not “people”.)

The evidence on the psychology of sexism is that the people who espouse hostile sexism are also benevolently sexist. They think women shouldn’t work – women should stay home and care for the children because women are so good at mothering. And they get hostile when their regressive worldview clashes with attempts of women and men to change the status quo.

Furthermore, the more you’re exposed to benevolent sexism, the more likely you are to later take on hostile sexist views. The more you’re primed to believe that women should fill the magical-traditional role, the more likely you’ll try to thwart any attempt to move away from this view.

A vital thing to note about benevolent sexism is how frequently it is embraced by women. Many women will argue that women are better at being nurturing, or communicating, etc. After all, why would you turn down a worldview that argues you’re wonderful and worthy of protection?

Hammond et al’s 2013 “The Allure of Sexism: Psychological Entitlement Fosters Women’s Endorsement of Benevolent Sexism Over Time“ gives the most up-to-date review I’ve seen on ambivalent sexism in its introduction – the rest of this paper is largely a summary of their literature review.

Benevolent Sexism

Benevolent sexism tends to be a fairly palatable type of sexism since it doesn’t seem sexist [2] – indeed women often see it as chivalry or intimacy rather than sexism [3]. After all, women “complete” men and are their “better halves”.

While hostile sexism “works to suppress direct challenges to men’s power by threatening women who taken on career roles or seek political reform” [2], benevolent sexism works to incentivise women’s adoption of traditional, patriarchal gender roles. Women are revered as special and caring – and deserving of protection.

And indeed, the main way in which benevolent sexism stops gender inequality is through women’s adoption of these views. Benevolent sexism incentizises women to stay in those special, caring, protection-worthy gender roles – and at the same time makes men’s social advantages seem more fair [4].

Effects on Women

A longitudinal study of New Zealanders found that psychological entitlement in women leads to greater endorsement of benevolent sexism. (Hammond et al, 2013). The more a woman believes she is deserving of good things, praise, and material wealth – the more benevolent sexism will appeal to her. After all, benevolent sexism both reveres women as being men’s “better halves” – and at the same time promises women that they will be protected and financially provided for by their male partners.

Women who espouse benevolent sexism have greater life satisfaction [5]. They feel good about their focus on care-giving and appreciate being provided for by their male partners. They have more power to influence their male partners [6], and hence have indirect access to resources and power. 

At the same time, however, benevolent sexism holds women back when it comes to gaining social power. Women who hold benevolently sexist beliefs have less ambition for education and their careers [7]. They are more likely to defer to their partners on career decisions [8]. They believe their careers should take the back seat to their male partner’s careers [9].

And furthermore, exposure to benevolently sexist statements leads women to perform poorly at tasks and feel lower competence [10]. They’re more likely to believe that men and women have an equal chance of success in society [4]. And they’re less likely to support gender-based collective action [11].

Effects on Men

For men, espousing benevolent sexism requires sacrifice in relationships [12]. They have to provide for their female partners, and live up to the romantic notion of the ‘’white knight’’.

But this sacrifice does come with benefits. Men who are portrayed as benevolently sexist are viewed as more attractive [13]. And men who actually agree with benevolent sexism are more caring and satified relationship partners [6].

Furthermore, women who espouse benevolent sexism are likely to be hostile/resistant to men who aren’t on the same page [6]. And women who espouse benevolent sexism are more let down when their male partners fail to live up to the fantasy of the white knight [14].

A Tragedy of the Commons

For women, benevolent sexism gives them dyadic power [1]. They have more power in relationships, and more satisfaction in them. As a result, women have something to lose if the status quo is disrupted [12].

But getting the individual benefits of benevolent sexism means agreement with the attitudes that perpetuate gender inequality. The women who agree with benevolent sexism are more likely to hold themselves back in their careers and less likely to support feminist causes.

If we want to get more women into non-traditional careers like computer science, sexism is something we need to tackle. We spend a lot of time trying to break down hostile sexism in STEM – but what about benevolent sexism? 


  1. Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “Hostile and benevolent sexism measuring ambivalent sexist attitudes toward women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 21.1 (1997): 119-135.
  2. Hammond, Matthew D., Chris G. Sibley, and Nickola C. Overall. “The Allure of Sexism Psychological Entitlement Fosters Women’s Endorsement of Benevolent Sexism Over Time.” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2013): 1948550613506124.
  3. Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2005). The burden of benevolent sexism: How it contributes to the maintenance of gender inequalities. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 633-642. doi:10.1002/ejsp.270
  4. Jost, J. T., & Kay, A. C. (2005). Exposure to benevolent sexism and complementary gender stereotypes: Consequences for specific and diffuse forms of system justification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 498–509. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.88.3.498
  5. Hammond, M. D., & Sibley, C. G. (2011). Why are benevolent sexists happier? Sex Roles, 65, 332–343. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0017-2
  6. Overall, N. C., Sibley, C. G., & Tan, R. (2011). The costs and benefits of sexism: Resistance to influence during relationship conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 271–290. doi:10.1037/a0022727
  7. Fernandez, M., Castro, Y., Otero, M., Foltz, M., & Lorenzo, M. (2006). Sexism, vocational goals, and motivation as predictors of men’s and women’s career choice. Sex Roles, 55, 267–272. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9079-y
  8. Moya, M., Glick, P., Exposito, F., de Lemus, S., & Hart, J. (2007). It’s for your own good: Benevolent sexism and women’s reactions to protectively justified restrictions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1421–1434. doi:10.1177/0146167207304790
  9. Chen, Z., Fiske, S. T., & Lee, T. L. (2009). Ambivalent Sexism and power-related gender-role ideology in marriage. Sex Roles, 60, 765–778. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9585-9
  10. Dardenne, B., Dumont, M., & Bollier, T. (2007). Insidious dangers of benevolent sexism: consequences for women’s performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 764–779. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.93.5.764
  11. Becker, J. C., & Wright, S. C. (2011). Yet another dark side of chivalry: Benevolent sexism undermines and hostile sexism motivates collective action for social change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 62–77. doi:10.1037/a0022615
  12. Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491–512. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.70.3.491
  13. Kilianski, S. E., & Rudman, L. A. (1998). Wanting it both ways: Do women approve of benevolent sexism? Sex Roles, 39, 333–352. doi:10.1023/A:1018814924402
  14. Hammond, M. D., & Overall, N. C. (2013). When relationships do not live up to benevolent ideals: Women’s benevolent sexism and sensitivity to relationship problems. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 212–223. doi:10.1002/ejsp.1939