Under the Hood

What Is Benevolent Sexism? Study Explains Why Women May Find It Attractive

Benevolent sexism may be a preferred or attractive trait to women when choosing a romantic partner, according to new research authored by Pelin Gul from Iowa State University and Tom Kupfer from the University of Kent in England.

The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on June 29. 

Psychologists have explained how sexism can be categorized into two broad types — Hostile sexism (HS) and Benevolent sexism (BS).

HS is the one that comes to mind first for most people. This kind of sexism is negative in nature and usually targeted at women, describing attitudes and actions that are meant to degrade and disrespect. Claiming that "women are not smart," is a simplistic example of HS. 

BS, on the other hand, describes a generalization or assumption that is not framed as an attack but may even be seen as a positive standard. Examples of BS include beliefs that men should always pay for a date, that all women are nurturing and soft, or that all men should remain strong and never cry.

The new paper presents a controversial hypothesis, suggesting that women prefer men with BS attitudes over those without despite potentially detrimental effects.

"We propose an alternative explanation drawn from evolutionary and sociocultural theories on mate preferences," the authors wrote. "Women find BS men attractive because BS attitudes and behaviors signal that a man is willing to invest."

Over 200 female students read the profile of a man (described as a potential partner or a work colleague) who either had BS or non-BS attitudes. Participants rated the men in terms of willingness to provide (how generous or selfish he would be), willingness to protect (how safe or vulnerable would they feel with him), how attractive they found him, and more.

The results revealed women found the BS partner more attractive, even though they perceived him as "more undermining and patronizing than the non-BS partner," the authors stated.

Another group of studies found women had a stronger preference for BS men in a romantic setting rather than in a professional setting. The authors seemed to observe this even among "high feminists," despite them being "aware of more specific harmful effects of BS behaviors, such as restriction of agency and competence."

The authors proposed women found BS men more attractive because they had a preference for mates who were "willing to invest by being protective, providing, and committed."

Women pick up on subtleties and are well aware of potential consequences, the authors stated, rather than being guided by "the superficially positive appearance," of BS. But it is after consideration that the listed benefits outweighed the potential harm and downsides of benevolent attitudes and behaviors.

In terms of limitations, the purpose behind BS was not addressed. Whether it stemmed from sincere respect or with an intention to undermine the woman could make a difference in how women respond.

"Similarly, our studies did not investigate the reasons behind women’s inferences that BS men are likely to be patronizing and undermining," the authors wrote.

It is possible that women can pick up on both HS and BS in the same man, which should be factored into future studies, they added.