Illustrated By Ammiel Mendoza.
A study published Monday in the journal Sex Roles underscores an insidious characteristic of modern sexism: that's it's often delivered with a smile, and so goes unrecognized for what it truly is. Researchers from Northeastern University organized 27 male-female pairs of volunteers and instructed the pairs to each tackle a trivia game together, and then to engage in unstructured conversation. Researchers evaluated the men's verbal and nonverbal expressions during these interactions. Male volunteers also completed a questionnaire that evaluated their levels of sexism. When researchers cross-referenced the men's behavior with their sexism ratings, they found that men who qualified as "benevolent sexists" were likely to show warmth and patience towards their female partners, while "hostile sexists" were likely to act critical and negative — the way one might expect a misogynist to act.

As the study's authors explain, "hostile sexism" reinforces the subjugation of woman through "dominance and denigration." "Benevolent sexism" achieves the same effect, but by perpetuating the belief that women are "pure and warm yet helpless and incompetent beings in need of cherished protection from men." The difference in action: A benevolent sexist is likely to agree with the statement "A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man," while a hostile sexist is likely to agree that "Women exaggerate problems they have at work" (actual statements used on the questionnaire that male participants completed).

Both styles are rooted in a belief in gender inequality. Benevolent sexism, however, is much easier to swallow — since it's couched in praise. What's more, benevolent sexists tend to express their ideology through nonverbal cues — smiling, leaning forward, nodding — while hostile sexists betray their opinions through critical language. This means benevolent sexism is harder to spot. (The study researchers controlled for the men's personalities and the women's behavior, recognizing that "friendly" men would display more warmth than other men, and that "friendly" women would elicit more warmth from their partners than other women would.)

This isn't to say that all men who open doors for women are raging misogynists, but rather that chivalry can be rooted in paternalism instead of mere etiquette — and that sexism comes in many forms. As the study's authors write, "supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless."

Their results are a valuable reminder that sexism shows up on a micro level, and that not all sexists express their beliefs by denigrating women. Examples of gross gender inequity that make us want to scream to the rafters are not hard to find. But, generally, these obvious examples are the composite result of smaller incidents that perpetuate inequity quietly, day after day. The threat isn't only the boss who denies an accomplished applicant employment simply because she is a woman. It's also the boss who passes over a female employee when assigning a new project — because, well, Catherine just had a baby; it would be a favor to her, really, to let her sit this one out. It's these micro-interactions that one by one add up to a crushing society-wide lack of female leadership. (Earlier this month, it came to light that fewer women run big companies — those in the S&P 1500 — than do men named John. Just pause to let that sink in.)

Another insidious quality of benevolent sexism is that it's not necessarily based in a belief that all women are deserving of politeness and respect; rather, it implies that a "good woman" is. Should a woman step outside of the "pure and warm" profile benevolent sexists assign to her, well, then she's on her own. For benevolent sexists, chivalry is not for women — it's only for women who "deserve it," and who know their place.
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