The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sexism often comes with a smile, study finds

Benevolent sexism makes men more smiley. (iStock)

Benevolent sexism makes men more smiley when they interact with women, and that's bad news. Men who put women on a pedestal may be the wolves in sheep clothing hindering gender equality.

A new study examining the nonverbal cues thrown out during interactions between men and women finds that men who have high ratings of "benevolent sexism" — attitudes towards women that are well-intentioned but perpetuate inequality — finds that smiling and other positive cues increase when this kind of sexism is prevalent.

The study, published Monday in the journal Sex Roles, is a small one: Researchers examined the interactions between 27 pairs of American college students. But while their findings are just preliminary, they hope that this will inspire more research on the insidious forms that sexism can take.

"Basically, the argument is that these two properties — hostile sexism and benevolent sexism — work together to maintain inequality," said lead author Jin Goh, a graduate student at Northeastern University. Most people think of sexist men as being dominant aggressors who believe that women should be put down in society. But other men believe that women should be treated with kindness and love, but still don't see them as being capable of achieving the same things as men.

"It's a very paternalistic, protective view of women, and it seems kind of appealing as a sort of chivalry," Goh said, "But it does contribute to inequality, because these men don't expect women to achieve high goals."

[Gender gap: Women welcome in ‘hard working’ fields, but ‘genius’ fields are male-dominated, study finds]

By examining the nonverbal cues, like expression and body language, that men had during conversations with women they were meeting for the first time, Goh found that this form of sexism wasn't just an idea in men's heads. It changed the way they interacted with women nonverbally.

"Men actually act friendlier and smile a lot if they have more benevolent sexism," Goh explained. He measured their ideology using a test called the Ambivalent Sexism Index. It had men rate their agreement with statements like "women are too easily offended" (an example of hostile sexism) and "a good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man" (an example of benevolent sexism). Statements that suggested equality, like "women shouldn't necessarily be rescued before men during a disaster" gave negative scores.

No matter how the women acted, men were more likely to show patience and friendly nonverbal cues the more highly they rated on the benevolent sexism scale.

"Sexism can appear very friendly and very welcoming, so in the paper we said that sexism can act like a wolf in sheep’s clothing," Goh said.  "We add that sexism can consciously or unconsciously cloak itself in friendliness, so in a way it’s more insidious and treacherous than hostile sexism."

[Men (on the Internet) don’t believe sexism is a problem in science, even when they see evidence]

The danger, Goh said, is that interactions are more pleasant when these kind of nonverbal cues are in play. While hostile sexists are less likely to smile and make pleasantries — making them easy to spot — benevolent sexists are actually more likable at first blush than men who truly respect women.

In other words, these men may not be as visible as angry Internet trolls who attack feminism. But they may have as much influence over the societal inequality of women. And they may also be easier to win over as actual supporters of equality. If only we could get them to stop being so damn charming.

More Reading:

Men (on the Internet) don’t believe sexism is a problem in science, even when they see evidence

Scientist apologizes for his sexist shirt, but the Internet still wants women to shut up and die

Gender gap: Women welcome in ‘hard working’ fields, but ‘genius’ fields are male-dominated, study finds