Sexism is one of humanity’s greatest pitfalls, and believe it or not, there are different forms of it. Some sexism arises from the male belief that women are warm and pure, yet helpless and in constant need of assistance. Another form is sheer disdain. According to a recent study from Northeastern University, to determine which type a man possesses, you may not need to look further than his smile.

The study, published in the online journal Sex Roles, analyzed men’s word choice, attitudes, and even facial expressions when interacting with women they had only just met. The researchers tested a group of 27 American male undergraduates for their “ambivalent sexism inventory” without telling the volunteers the exact nature of their questioning. This was a covert way to determine the men’s subconscious beliefs about women.

For example, men who had “benevolent sexism” tended to display a belief that women should be put on a pedestal and need male protection. Men who displayed “hostile sexism” shared other beliefs, such as that women are too easily offended.

The 27 American male undergraduates were then matched with 27 female counterparts they had never met. According to the press release, the pairs were filmed while playing a simple trivia game and engaging in a short conversation following. The researchers were looking for non-verbal cues to the men’s perception of these strange women while word count software examined their level of approachableness and friendliness in their conversation with women they had only just met.

Results showed that, non-surprisingly, men who scored higher as “hostile sexists” in the ambivalent sexism inventory displayed less approachable speech than men whose sexism had more valiant ulterior motives. Hostile sexists were also less likely to use positive emotional words in their speech, unlike the benevolent sexists.

It was not just the men’s speech, however, that gave clues to their ideology; their smiles also seemed to be clear indicators of their opinion of the women they had only just met. For example, men who were “hostile sexists” smiled far less than the “benevolent” sexists. When the hostile sexists did smile, their smiles were perceived as being far less warm and friendly than the smiles of the benevolent sexists. The benevolent sexists were described as being more patient as they waited for their female partners to answer the trivia questions.

Now, at first glance it may seem that benevolent sexism is a harmless form of prejudice, especially when sized up against its obviously hostile counterpart. However, the researchers involved in the study warn that it’s just as detrimental to females' place in society.

"Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep's clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level," explained Judith Hall, who along with Jin Goh headed the study. "These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless."

The study’s goal was to reveal both the bad and slightly less bad faces of sexism in an effort to help society recognize it in everyday life. The researchers feel that if we are better able to recognize the various forms of sexism we can work better to eliminate them.

"Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society," Goh said.

Source: Goh JX, Hall JA. Nonverbal and Verbal Expressions of Men’s Sexism in Mixed-Gender Interactions. Sex Roles. 2015