There is nothing charming about sexism. Walking up to the line between being chivalrous and being patronizing, however, can pay dividends for those confident that they won’t trip over it. This sort of envelope-pushing behavior, which ranges from the fairly innocuous (holding an umbrella for a woman) to the freighted (refusing to use bad language in mixed company) is what social psychologists call “benevolent sexism.” These are actions performed out of apparent or actual kindness that nevertheless seem to call into question the independence of women. And, according to new research, even staunch feminists seem to appreciate most gestures. In other words, hold the door for the feminists in your life.
“Women prefer men who behave in ways that could be described as benevolently sexist,” social psychologists Pelin Gul of Iowa State University and Tom Kupfer of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam writes in The Conversation.
The fact that women seem to have a fondness for minor male gestures is odd because studies have shown that women do not benefit from benevolent sexism. Women who let men carry their bags report becoming increasingly dependent on men for help, and less willing to protest when a man tells them what to do. They are less ambitious, and they perform poorly on cognitive tests. And yet, when Gul and Vrije surveyed 700 women between the ages of 18 and 73, they found that their subjects perceived benevolently sexist men as far more attractive even — here comes the unexpected kicker — when they also find them patronizing.
Interestingly, the trend held even for women who, based on questionnaire responses, were “strong feminists.” These women were more likely than others to find benevolent sexism patronizing, but no less likely to consider it attractive when a man acted chivalrously. Why did these 700 women prefer benevolently sexist men? “In their responses, the women in our study rated them as more likely to protect, provide and commit,” Gul and Vrije write. In other words, the actual behavior is annoying, but women read it as being indicative of good values.
This effect may be due to parental investment theory, a controversial hypothesis that holds that women evolved to prefer mates that were likely to protect and provide for them through pregnancy and lactation. Evolution “shaped female psychology to attend to, and prefer, mates whose characteristics and behaviors reveal the willingness to invest,” Gul and Vrije write. “Opening a car door or offering his coat are signs that he may have the desired disposition.” This theory supposes that women aren’t just looking at the evolutionary or actual fitness of a potential partner. They are trying to understand whether his impulses will, over the longer term, lead to the safety or danger of their children.
Whether this is the case or not, the study sheds light on the odd phenomenon of sexism that women find attractive and raises new questions about how women should address the costs and benefits of benevolent sexism. “Does benevolent sexism always undermine women?” the authors ask. “Understanding these nuances may allow us to reduce the negative effects of benevolent sexism without requiring women to reject the actual good things that can arise from this behavior.”