Sexism explained.

Although sexism has been around for a long time, the official psychological term “ambivalent sexism” was not coined until 1996 by Dr. Peter Glick and Dr. Susan Fiske. They proposed that sexism can be split into two distinct categories: hostile and benevolent sexism.

Hostile sexism

This is the type of sexism that everyone stereotypically thinks of as sexist attitudes, such as that women are weak, incompetent and sexually manipulative. It views them as inferior to men and objectifies them as sexual objects to be used merely for male pleasure. This includes things like telling offensive jokes, domestic violence against women and catcalling at women in the street.

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Examples of hostile sexism from Glick and Fiske’s sexism scale (The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory) include:

“Once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a tight leash.”

“When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated again.”

“Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favour them over men, under the guise of asking for "equality."”

Benevolent sexism

This is a much more subtle type of sexism that is sometimes rephrased as "chivalry." It is often brushed off by people as being “not really sexist.” This involves praising women’s traditionally feminine qualities and encouraging traditional gender roles. This includes things like opening doors for women, carrying things for them and buying gifts for girlfriends/wives out of the blue. Although all of these things seem like nice things to do, in the context of men consistently doing these things for women, they imply that women need men to take care of them and look after them. This stereotypes women as the weaker sex, and encourages them to stay in inferior societal positions to men.

Examples of benevolent sexism from Glick and Fiske’s scale include:

“Women should be cherished and protected by men.”

“A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.”

“Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well being in order to provide financially for the women in their lives.”

The topic of sexism - particularly benevolent sexism - frequently comes up in discussion between me and my boyfriend. He argues that things like holding doors for someone, buying presents, wanting to provide for financially for them and wanting to protect them aren't sexist, they're just the sort of things you do for someone you love, male or female. And I can see his point - and I know he is does not truly endorse benevolent sexism or we would've broken up a long time ago! And despite it being the opposite of traditional gender roles, I also like to buy him gifts, pay for our meals out together, hold doors for him.

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I think the problem arises with people's expectations of these things; females expect these things from their male partners more so than the males would expect from their female partners. In fact, an article published last year by Hammond and Overall (2013) showed just how bad benevolent sexism can be for relationships. When women hold benevolently sexist views, they are more likely to experience more sensitivity about problems in the relationship, a faster decline in relationship satisfaction when experiencing these problems and more hurtful partner behaviour. The authors concluded that women who endorse benevolent sexism are quite frankly "vulnerable within their relationships."

After a lot of thinking and many discussions with my boyfriend about it, my conclusion is that it's perfectly acceptable to hold the door open for your girlfriend - as long as she holds it for you sometimes too.


Hammond M.D.; Overall, N. C. (2013) When relationships do not live up to benevolent ideals: Women's benevolent sexism and sensitivity to relationship problems. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(3), 212-223. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1939

Glick, P.; Fiske, S. T. (1996) The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(3), 491-512. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.491

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