Just because a man smiles at a woman and is keen to engage in conversation with her, it doesn't mean he isn't harbouring sexist views, scientists have found.
There is a particular type of sexism associated with overly friendly behaviour in men, which has been labelled as “benevolent” or “friendly” sexism by researchers at Northeastern University in the US.
By closely studying the interactions of 27 pairs of female and male undergraduate students in the US, they found that two different types of gender discrimination were portrayed in some of the men's choice of words, attitudes and smiles. The results are published in the journal Sex Roles.
The first, known as “hostile” sexism, is the more obvious variety. It is based on an inherent dislike of women and is usually expressed through aggressive, dominant and rude behaviour in an effort to maintain power. But since it is so blatant and the consequences are so immediate, it is more obviously frowned upon and less likely to create a long-lasting negative view of women in the work-place.
It is the other, benevolent kind that has the most pernicious effects, since it often makes women feel good about themselves in the immediate term.
"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, co-author of 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."
This apparently harmless view of women is more “paternalistic” according to the report, reflecting a “chivalrous and subjectively positive view of women”. Men who express it tend to view women as warm and helpless, incompetent and in need of men's protection. These men were much more popular among the women in the study, being viewed as more approachable and friendly.
But the friendly guise of this low view of women could cause much more damage to women's career prospects than rudeness and obvious discrimination, according to Jin Goh, one of the researchers involved:
While many people are sensitive to sexist verbal offences, they may not readily associate sexism with warmth and friendliness.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.
It seems men who treat women with the same level of friendliness and/or rudeness as men are the ones who consider women to be their equals.