Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for May, 2022 is Gender at Workplaces. We invite submissions on the many layers of this theme throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly refer to our submission guidelines and email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
Sexism sometimes is so subtle and nuanced that it gets camouflaged and is unable to identify. Even if we notice it, we question our own experience and reasoning, drowning in self doubt and confusion. Such sexism, when manifested at the workplace, risks the professional development of women.
Benevolent sexism is essentially characterised by positive stereotypes towards a specific gender, mostly women. Examples of benevolent sexism towards women include assuming them to be nurturing, being delicate and weak. It is fairly common in a workplace environment, and due to its characteristic being subtle, it goes unnoticed.
Dr. Peter Glick who has a PhD in bias and discrimination and has extensively researched sexism states how the epitome of benevolent workplace sexism is “failing to give women challenging assignments or promotions under the assumption that it would be ‘too stressful’ or interfere with family commitments.” Such sexism, like every other type of sexism, harms people who belong to marginalised genders through reinforcing gender inequality.
Hostile sexism in the workplace is also a very common occurrence but it is very direct, for example, not allowing a woman to do a job because she’s assumed to be incompetent. It is also rarely tolerated. Benevolent sexism on the other hand uses positive stereotypes, making it unnoticeable and tolerable, for instance, saying that a woman looks too motherly for doing a particular presentation.
No workplace is free from such sexism, be it blue collar or white collar jobs and the perpetrators of such sexism can be men and women alike. Moreover, such sexism is hardly faced by men, making it difficult for women to succeed in their professional sphere.
Women in the workplace experience twice as likely to experience sexism. Along with this, since most women deal with benevolent sexism, around 28 per cent women imbibe those values and in order to move up in their workplaces, try to work hard only to impress their superiors for a promotion. All this is fuelled by the sexism that emerges during job appointments.
In 2020, women held 38 per cent of the managerial positions, as opposed to 62 per cent held by men. India has the third-lowest global representation of female managers. Sexism in workplaces in India is fairly clear, with India ranking among the lowest regarding female representation at management levels (10 per cent). India is only ahead of South Korea (8 per cent) and Japan (7 per cent).
In 2019, only 8 per cent of women had a managerial role, 9 per cent had business management roles, and 2 per cent CEO positions. Even though women’s representation has increased by 5.9 per cent in the last six years, the number is still significantly below the global average of 24 per cent.
There has been extensive research on the impact of benevolent sexism on women. It has been found that when women encounter benevolent sexism at their workplace before carrying out a cognitive task, their performance before completing the task gets adversely affected. Along with this, research has shown that being a target of paternalistic, benevolent sexism can negatively impact women’s self-efficacy, or how much they believe in their own ability to achieve goals and complete tasks.
This only increases their frequency of experiencing negative affect or negative emotions which again obstructs effective work performance. Ultimately, women are more likely to endorse benevolent sexism than hostile sexism because it is, on the surface, a seemingly ‘positive‘ form of sexism. Since women receive tangible positive rewards like care, protection, etc. from enablers of benevolent sexism, they inherit those values and even pass them on to others. Thereby, it becomes a vicious cycle, difficult to identify and break.
The most effective method of avoiding being the cause or enabler of such kind of sexism is to stop making any assumptions about a person that is related to their gender. Additionally, having a one to one conversation with the other person to know them better instead of presuming something about them is essential.
This will also help one to lay out appropriate objectives and goals for them, without gender being the deciding factor. Along with this, several women in the workplace receive compliments only related to their appearance, and hardly about their work. This is yet another example of benevolent sexism and it is best to not assume that ‘beauty and brains’ is a sort of dichotomy that cannot appear together with women.
Leaders must judge people on their capability instead of their appearances or assigned gender roles. There must be strict legal and policy interventions to dismantle power systems that thrive on internalised patriarchy. Additionally, in meetings and other workplace interactions, the contributions of men and women should be encouraged equally. In task forces that are high profile, equal representation of men and women is essential. Lastly, there must be in every case, equal pay for equal work, irrespective of gender.
To reiterate, benevolent sexism is fairly common and often overlooked, making it dangerous for people from marginalised genders to address, especially in workplaces where their experiences and upward mobility are hindered due to such sexism.
Working towards identifying benevolent sexist attitudes, conducting regular and effective gender sensitisation sessions in workplaces and also making victims of such sexism understand that sexism is not positive, and is in fact harmful to them, are few of the ways in which we as a society can help prevent benevolent sexism.
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India