Benevolent sexism: Chivalry's dark side

by Catherine Woulfe / 10 January, 2013
Academics believe more than 80% of us exhibit signs of benevolent sexism, which promises women they will be protected but can trigger scary outcomes for relationships.
How sexist are you? To take the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, click here

Benevolent sexism
photo Getty Images

On paper, Prince Charming sounds quite a guy. He is chivalrous and gallant. A man of action and status. Loaded. Given to saving damsels in distress – on a white horse, no less.

Snow White (like the myriad other princesses in the prince’s harem) is not a bad catch herself. She’s sweet, mild, pure, pretty, a bit of a homebody. She often needs saving, which is nice for the prince, and she quite enjoyed cleaning up after seven men, which bodes well for her planned future as a stay-at-home wife and mother.

In the fairy tales, these two live happily ever after. But it is increasingly clear that their old fashioned “benevolent” sexist attitudes, which permeate modern society as they do fairy stories, have a powerful effect on real relationships.

Benevolent sexism is a term used in academic circles. It is often equated to chivalry. But although chivalry is the most visible part of such sexism, it’s not the whole story. According to academics, benevolent sexists believe that women are warm, wonderful, fragile creatures who ought to be protected and provided for by men. They tend to think women should be at home with the kids and men should be the breadwinners.

But in the 21st century, aren’t such beliefs rare in this part of the world? Not according to a recent study from the University of Auckland, which claims 81% of women in New Zealand and 88% of men subscribe to such stereotypes to some degree, based on their answers to a questionnaire. The good news? Only a small proportion – 11% of men and 5% of women – are considered “extreme” believers.

“At an individual level, it doesn’t have a huge effect,” says the author of a related study, Matthew Hammond. “It’s not about one Prince Charming going out there and being a Prince Charming, or one idiot saying really stupid things about inequality and women in the workplace. It’s the attitudes we hold as a society that really shape the outcomes for women.”


To understand how such attitudes influence relationships, it’s important to look at the kinds of expectations involved. Benevolent sexists tend to look for certain traits in their ideal other half. The men go for good looks and good cooks: domestic goddesses who are both supportive and submissive. The women are after a romantic man who has a successful career and is dedicated to supporting his family.

None of that was important to Ilona Hanne, who says she definitely doesn’t subscribe to benevolent sexist beliefs. When she met her husband, Sven, she was not keen to settle down, but on her wish list for the far distant future was someone with whom she could have a damned good argument. “For me, it was cerebral – it was the academic side of it,” she says.

They married three months after meeting and, surprisingly, Ilona chose to say “obey” in her vows. “I don’t think it’s putting him at the head of the household, but it’s more I respect him enough to actually see him as the joint head of the household. Whereas I think, quite frankly, previous relationships haven’t always been that even.”

The couple live in Stratford, Taranaki, with three children aged seven, four and 14 months. Ilona is working, and stayed home for two years with each of the first two children only because Sven, an engineer, got a promotion and a pay rise. Until then, “we seriously thought that we would swap over and I would go back to work and he would stay at home with the baby”.

Sven is less squeamish than his wife, so he deals with nappies and other smelly messes. Ilona has worked in teaching, so she handles homework and school. He keeps the car and the garden ticking along; she does the bedmaking and cosseting. Gender, she says, is not a factor. “The phrase I use to my friends is playing to strengths.”

Ilona says that although Sven will open doors or carry heavy bags for her, it’s driven by common decency, not chivalry. “I take it as respect of an equal person … I would be horrified if Sven let me struggle carrying something heavy when his hands were empty, because I know he’s stronger than I am. But I wouldn’t be offended. It’s sort of more, ‘Well, that’s not the person I know.’” She opens doors for everyone, regardless of gender.


Benevolent sexists take a much less pragmatic approach, academics say. They are more likely to have unrealistic ideas about what a relationship will be like. They tend to believe that any disagreement is destructive, that partners should be able to read each other’s minds and feelings, and that some people are fated to be together.

Hammond, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Auckland who is investigating sexism in relationships, says there is a link between believing women should be valued and cherished and protected, and buying into the version of love we’re sold in fairy tales.

“[Researchers] wondered if you believe in the first set of beliefs, do you also believe that there is a Prince Charming out there for you? Do you think that relationships should be this lovely romantic picture? And yeah, they found an association there.”

Crucially, he says, these people also tend to view relationships as contracts, with each party implicitly agreeing to keep up their end of the bargain: the man will work outside the home to provide and protect, while the woman will sacrifice her career to stay home, nurture and support him. These roles are rigid and prescriptive, and mean the woman ends up more invested than the man in the success of the relationship.

Matthew Hammond
Mathhew Hammond, photo David White

Hammond’s work (co-authored by Nickola Overall) suggests women’s unequal investment in relationships has alarming flow-on effects, making them more easily hurt and upset, more likely to lash out at their partners and more likely to consider breaking up.

“It’s because benevolent sexism as an ideology promises women this very revered, respected role,” Hammond says. “It promises that by adopting traditional roles, they’re going to be cherished and protected and their husbands will turn into chivalrous providers. When that doesn’t happen, that’s really dissatisfying. So that seems to trigger hostility and scary outcomes for relationships.”

Hammond expected benevolent sexism to play a part in relationship troubles, but was surprised how influential it was. “We ended up finding really surprisingly strong effects … I was fascinated by how well it worked.”

First, he and Overall tested how benevolent sexist couples handled “problems that everyone has”, from bickering over chores to dealing with affairs or problems with the in-laws. They tracked 91 committed heterosexual couples for three weeks. Each person filled out an initial round of questionnaires, then kept online web diaries about the relationship, any problems that had cropped up and how they were feeling.

The women classified as benevolent sexists in the study were much more vulnerable than men (or other women) to problems. “They’re more hurt,” says Hammond. “They’re more dissatisfied.” And it wasn’t just serious issues that caused strife. “When [they] had an argument about who had to go get the groceries, they were also more hurt. So it’s a wide range of things.”

For non-sexists, a long relationship is reassuring, because feelings of trust and security build over time and act as a buffer when problems come up. But the benevolent sexist women in the study had the opposite reaction: the longer their relationship, the more thrown they were by problems.

This appears to go back to the idea of the “contract” – over time, these women had sacrificed more and had more to lose if the relationship fell apart.

Hammond and Overall believe the findings have important implications for women’s well-being. Their paper says, “Even very satisfied and well-functioning relationships encounter problems and hurtful partner behaviour. Heightened sensitivity to relationship difficulties will make it hard for women who strongly endorse benevolent sexism to remain satisfied, even within relatively ‘good’ relationships.”

In the second part of their study, Hammond and Overall tested how 86 women in steady relationships reacted when their partner was hurtful towards them. These women kept web diaries for 10 days and, again, the benevolent sexists suffered most.

As they put it in their paper, “Women who believe they should be revered and cherished experience harder falls when partners do not behave as though [such women] belong on a pedestal.”

These women do not suffer in silence. The day after a problem, they are more likely than other women to lash out at their partner, insulting or criticising them.

Overall has also found that benevolent sexist women are more hostile during conversations with their partner if that partner is not keeping up his end of the “contract”. Their relationships were therefore more likely to have the ups and downs of a roller coaster than others, which is damaging in the long term.

In another study, Hammond and Overall followed 81 couples for a year, finding that the more people buy into benevolent sexism, the less tolerant – and more willing to break up – they are when their partner falls short of their ideals.

“The more you agree [with benevolent sexism] the worse it’s going to be,” Hammond says. “It has an effect no matter how much you agree … We’re talking effects that are relevant to most of the population.”


In Hammond and Overall’s studies, the men were relatively impervious to problems, no matter what their beliefs. It’s thought this is because men have status outside the home, so have less to lose from a break-up. Men with benevolent sexist attitudes were also happier with their love lives overall, perhaps because the “contract” means they get to play the gallant protector, which is tied into ideas about being a good man. “Men are definitely the big winners,” Hammond says.

Such men have a tendency to turn nasty when a woman steps seriously out of line. “The second the woman steps out of the cookie-cutter traditional role [of] faithful, loyal woman, it flips around from caring and protective to derogatory, and this is not good.”

Hammond would like to see more research done to investigate what can trigger this flip: a woman deciding to focus on her career rather than family, perhaps, or infidelity.

Studies have already shown that benevolent sexist men are more likely to blame the victim in a rape scenario where the woman is being unfaithful or is perceived as behaving inappropriately. “That’s a terrifying finding,” says Hammond’s supervisor, Chris Sibley, a lecturer in social psychology. “You can’t tell me that’s okay. The very fact that benevolent sexism when you look at it on the surface seems so nice is what’s really scary about it.”

Chris Sibley
Chris Sibley, photo David White

Benevolent sexism is thought to go hand in hand with something called hostile sexism, which is hostility towards women (such as feminists, career women and a group the academics call “sexual temptresses”) who challenge traditional gender roles. These two facets of sexism are theorised to operate as a carrot and stick, rewarding women who conform and pushing down those who don’t. Repeated studies have shown that most people who endorse one type also endorse the other – or eventually do.

Men with these double-edged beliefs are likely to be either “patronisingly sweet or viciously hostile” towards a woman at any given time, according to the 1996 paper that introduced the theory. But Sibley says the hostile sexism side of it is so widely frowned upon that people with those beliefs have learned to hide them well.

So if you’re trying to gauge a person’s attitudes, he suggests looking for signs of benevolent sexism – like chivalry – and when you spot them, treating that person as a potential “iceberg” of hidden hostile sexism.

“That’s not true of everybody. I’d hate for readers to think, ‘Oh, because I agree with that [benevolent sexist] statement that means I’m high in hostile sexism.’ It’s not the case. But on average, in our society, those very small groups tend to go together.”

So beware the man who offers to help with your bags? “Well, I’d say probably more watch out for the guy who insists on carrying your bag, even when you say, ‘My bag’s not that heavy. I’m perfectly able to carry it. Thank you, anyway.’”

Other studies suggest that women who tend to be sexist also tend to wear more make-up and are more body-conscious, less educated and less ambitious.

Lest we get carried away with this stereotyping, Sibley says sexist men and women are also very likely to want to put people in boxes. “They have a high tendency to categorise into absolute, discrete categories like ‘you’re either like this or like that’. They really want to fit people into being one subtype or another. You’re either a really valuable, cherished woman or sister or mother or partner or daughter, who should be provided for and protected, or you’re a totally different type of woman who’s trying to compete with you and who should be looked down on and whom you don’t like.”

Overall, Sibley found only 8.3% of New Zealanders are “extreme sexists”. Those in this category strongly agreed with such ideas as feminists are asking for more than they deserve; women should always be rescued before men; once a woman gets a man to commit, she always puts him on a tight leash; and good women should be put on pedestals by their men. (These statements are part of a 22-statement list called the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, which is used to measure levels of sexism.)

A further 44% Sibley classed as “moderately” sexist: they would hover around neutral on the statements above. “Mild” sexists, which make up 23%, would slightly disagree with the statements.

“The vast majority of people – it’s like 85% of the sample – are reasonably nonsexist. Which is actually kinda neat. And I think that’s what you’d predict about New Zealand. We’re a reasonably egalitarian, open society right? And that fits the trend.”

Sibley believes his research is the first of its kind in the world. It’s based on data from a demographically representative sample of 6450 people, surveyed as part of his 20-year longitudinal project, the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study.


The grand irony is that although benevolent sexism appears to damage relationships, it is a desire for romance that keeps such sexist attitudes alive. As long as women (however subconsciously) pine for a powerful prince to sweep them off their feet, and as long as men continue to link earning capacity and chivalry with being a good guy, we’re unlikely to let go of the gendered prejudices that underpin it all.

But are we really still thinking that way? Consider our modern fairy tales: Fifty Shades of Grey, with its billionaire hero and virginal damsel; the set-in-stone gender roles of Downton Abbey; our fascination with real-life royals such as Prince William – and our insistence on painting him as gallant and protective, his wife as sweet and socially adept.

Then there’s the fact that iconic 1995 dating book The Rules – which American academics Peter Glick and Susan Fiske studied while putting together the theory of benevolent sexism – has just spawned its sixth spin-off. Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets for Dating hit Amazon on January 8 and was ranked sixth in its category just hours after launch. With its central message of “let him take the lead”, the book is basically a how-to for benevolent sexism.

“Will people one day scoff at it?” says Glick. “Possibly, yeah. But I think that one big force that’s keeping us in place is heterosexual romance. That’s maybe going to be the last bastion, the strongest bastion of benevolent sexism.”

Facing up to the BS

Benevolent sexism acts as a societal “protection racket” and makes women perform worse.

In academic literature, “benevolent sexism” is sometimes referred to by its acronym, BS. And the people behind the theory happily admit that the “bullshit” dig is no accident. The theory was first outlined in a 1996 paper by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (now professors at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and at Princeton University, respectively). They believe that for women, buying into benevolent sexism is a way of explaining and feeling better about the fact that women still tend to get a rougher deal than men.

Peter Glick
Peter Glick

This fits with Matthew Hammond’s 2011 honours work at the University of Auckland, published in the journal Sex Roles, which explored a pesky quirk of BS: holding these beliefs tends to make people happier.

Last month his work was replicated overseas, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly and pounced on by commentators including conservative Christian pundit Charles Murray (best known for grading races according to intelligence in his book The Bell Curve). Murray mocked the authors and ignored all their negative findings, writing: “When social scientists discover something that increases life satisfaction for both sexes, shouldn’t they at least consider the possibility that they have come across something that is positive?” Even the Atlantic weighed in, with a transparently titled piece called “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance”.

“But what that paper found,” Hammond says in a tone that suggests he’s said this many times before, “was that women who agree to these attitudes are more satisfied only because they are seeing the world as more fair. They have changed the way they see the world and they’re going, ‘Men and women, we’re actually equal’, ignoring the objective things. It’s not really a good life satisfaction, because it’s about justifying and rationalising the way the world is.”

(Men who are benevolent sexists are thought to be happier for more straightforward reasons: it’s a sweet deal for them, an affirmation of their power and superiority, both as individuals and as a group.)

Glick says that on a societal level, BS operates as a self-defence mechanism, or “protection racket”. In countries where women who challenge gender roles face hostility and violence, women have much higher levels of benevolent sexism. He gives the example of Pakistan, where in October Taliban men shot 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai for advocating for women’s right to education.

“It takes a hell of a lot of courage to speak out and it’s much more attractive to accept this notion that, well, if I stay in line I’ll get this protection, and to endorse those beliefs and say, ‘Hey, yeah, men should be protecting me.’ Men are the threat and men are the protectors, so the more perception of threat that women face, the more they seek out that benevolent sexism. That’s an important dynamic to understand and expose.”

More relevant to New Zealanders is that benevolent sexism has been shown to be damaging to women in the workplace. Women exposed to straightforward hostile sexism – like someone telling them they probably won’t be up to a task – are inclined to loathe that person but do the task well. Women exposed to benevolent sexism, however – such as an offer of help from a male colleague – perform worse.

“That’s when it does the most damage.” says Hammond. “It’s when you’re thinking, ‘Was that sexism? Should I be upset? Should I not be upset? What am I doing?’”

Happily, another set of studies is starting to show that forewarned really is forearmed. In these studies, women are told about benevolent sexism and the negative effects it can have, then keep diaries recording any BS things that happen to them. Then, Hammond says, “it stops having these kind of undermining confidence effects. It only works when it’s below that [awareness] level.”

On a role

One couple refuse to go along with society’s stereotypes about gender.

Joanne, Hugo and Rob Kinnaird, photo Marty Melville

When Joanne Kinnaird and her husband, Rob, venture into building supplies stores, a funny thing happens. “They often come up to Rob and go, ‘Yeah, mate, waddayawant?’ And he goes, ‘I’m just the labourer! Talk to her, she’s the foreman!’” He means it.

Joanne, 50, and Rob, 46, have been married 19 years. They have a 16-year-old son, Hugo, and their own way of dividing up the household to-do list.

Joanne does all the building, gardening and lawn mowing, “all the sort of male things”. Rob does the housework, grocery shopping and planning for the family.

“My father was a boatbuilder,” Joanne says. “He taught me how to build … He made sure I had a toolbox when I left home; that I knew how to change a washer in a tap; that I knew how to hammer and build and use saws. He was very forward-thinking in that. He really thought women should be capable.”

Some of their friends think the arrangement strange. But, she says, “it works for us and it makes us stronger. It might not work for other people, just like when I see sexism in other people’s relationships and I know it’s not for me. I couldn’t live like that.” She says the key to their relationship is love and being able to count on each other. “That kind of support and strength transcends gender, money, status or any other issues.”

Circumstances, rather than choice, mean she is technically a housewife at the moment. Joanne suffered a bout of serious depression that meant she had to leave her part-time job six months ago. Then in August she had a series of falls that have left her incapacitated. She has been battling to get well since, so the DIY projects have been put on hold for a while.

Rob is a long-haul truck driver for Foodstuffs; he starts at 3am, drives from Wellington to Palmerston North and back, and arrives home about 2.30pm.

“I’m acutely aware that when he walks in the door, he needs a cup of tea, he needs looking after, because he’s knackered. He’s the breadwinner. I’ve got to make sure that he’s there for us. I don’t know that I was aware of that before I left my job.”

Joanne is enjoying the novelty of being at home – but says there is no way she would have stepped into this role if Rob had expected it from the start. “Ah, no.”

Joanne puts the finishing touches to a table.
Joanne puts the finishing touches to a table, photo Marty Melville

On the other hand, chivalry is an important part of their relationship. Although Joanne says it wasn’t an attribute she was looking for in a partner – and describes herself as very independent – she loves that it’s part of the package with Rob. He opens doors, goes first to help her down steep sections when they’re bushwalking, walks on the traffic side of the footpath and has put together an emergency pack in case of earthquakes. He sees that as part of being a good man, she says – an attitude handed down from his parents and reinforced by six years in the army.

“I love how he is strong and really looks out for our safety. I don’t think that is sexism, I just think it is something he does. “He is an awesome man. I love chivalry. I don’t like sexism. I think chivalry is just good manners. Sexism is like racism, it’s abhorrent: ‘You’re a little woman, you should stay home and do the house while I go out and do the work.’ I see it, especially in the generation above mine. For those in their sixties and certainly in pockets [of society] it is still alive and well.”

Now, Joanne and Rob are making sure Hugo has all the bases covered. He definitely has an old-fashioned chivalry about him, she says, but he also knows how to sew, cook and do laundry. Of course, she’s also teaching him to build.

What's a man to do?

Peter Glick, one of the founders of the benevolent sexism theory, notes that in some ways men are more “straitjacketed” than women by gender roles. Women get different messages in the workplace and at home, he says, whereas “with men it’s a very consistent message. You should be strong, you should be ambitious, you should be agentic and you should not show weakness.”

But should a man open a door for a woman?

In his classes about sexism, this is always the sticking point. “[Men] feel like they’re being labelled as immoral, bad, sexist for doing something that perhaps their mum taught them to do. Perhaps that their girlfriend wants them to do. And women are also pushing back, because it’s very enmeshed with our notions of romance. People go right away to ‘I shouldn’t open doors for anyone’. Well, nobody’s saying that.

“When people really do need help, everybody should be helpful. That would be good. But if somebody really needs help, it shouldn’t matter what their gender is. We shouldn’t necessarily presume that a woman needs more help than a man.”

How sexist are you?
Experts use a list of 22 statements – such as “women seek to gain power by getting control over men” and “women should be cherished and protected by men” – to determine an individual’s levels of benevolent and hostile sexism. This test is called the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. Click here to take the quiz.
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