Benevolent sexism — comments and actions that may sound positive or put women in a position of superiority, but still reinforce sexist stereotypes nonetheless — continues to be a problem in the workplace, at home, and elsewhere. It's tougher to address, too: What are some appropriate ways to respond to benevolent sexism when the person making such remarks might think they're paying you a compliment?
Benevolent sexism is sneaky. Hostile sexism is easier to detect and counter. Hostile sexism can be comments like, "Women are too sensitive," or "Women don't make good leaders." It's overt, obvious, damaging. But benevolent sexism? It creeps in quietly. It could be a harmless comment from your partner that women are better at cleaning or make better parents. Flattering? It might seem that way. Regardless, words like that go against the exact thing we've been arguing: That all genders are equal.
But what exactly do you say to someone who tells you that women are the better parent? "HOW DARE YOU. YOU'RE HORRIBLE!" That won't fly. It's counterproductive and doesn't even show the other person why their comment was unfair. If you'd like to respond with kindness and a bit of smarts, here are some ideas.
1If They Refer To Women Only As An Attachment Of Men...
There's a good chance they don't mean anything nasty when they refer to women as wives and mothers, although sometimes this comment is horribly careless. (For instance, at the 2016 Olympics, it was all too common for stellar athletes to be identified as someone's wife.) The problem is that this puts women in a position where their very existence relies on men — they are not their own, individual selves. If you're just someone's mother, wife, what happens when you remove that other person? You don't exist anymore?
...Remind Them That We Don't Speak Of Men This Way.
Gently point out that very typically, we're not calling men someone's father or husband. Yes, it happens. But far less overwhelmingly. If you wouldn't speak a certain way of men, odds are you might want to reconsider speaking that way about women.
2If They Say That Women Make Better Parents And Homemakers...
It can understandably sound like a compliment to say that women are better at cooking, cleaning, and raising the kiddies. People are quick to point out that we're (supposedly) more nurturing, caring, affectionate, sensitive. Regardless of whether or not we possess those attributes more than our male counterparts, though, there's one huge problem with this kind of benevolent sexism.
...Point Out That This Is Largely Due To A Self-Perpetuating Stereotype.
Why are women better homemakers? Why are we supposedly better with kids? Because sexism and stereotypes put us in the home, where we "belong." We have a harder time getting raises and promotions, and securing positions of leadership. Depending on the industry we work in, finding a job all together might be harder than it is for men. The truth is that men are just as capable of being parents and homemakers, and women don't have to be in order to be valuable people.
3If They Say That Women Need To Be "Protected" From Something...
This could apply to a variety of things: Being protected from victimization, bullying, harassment, other kinds of violence, etc. Do we all want to feel protected? Certainly. But as with the previous examples, this presents its own challenges.
...Tell Them That We Shouldn't Be Put In A Position Where We Require Protection In The First Place.
Take sexual harassment, as an example. Regardless of a person's intentions or how kind they are, the idea that we need to learn how to protect women from harassment encourages the rape culture that still says women are responsible for not getting assaulted, as opposed to demanding that we teach people not to assault. How about protecting women from being objectified or sexualized by the media, or other people, or whoever? OK, but how about we just stop objectifying and sexualizing in the first place? This isn't to say we all shouldn't learn to stick up for ourselves, because there will always be bad people out there. But it's called rape culture for a reason. (CULTURE — just because I really want to point that out.)
4If They Say Women Are More Beautiful...
This one kills me. I've heard more than once that women are the more beautiful of the sexes because the male body is just "funny looking." I... I just... huh??
...Remind Them That Beauty Is Subjective, And We've All Got It.
There are a couple problems with the "but women are just so beautiful" statement. First, similar to the comment about women making better homemakers and parents, this comment is also horribly sexist against men. It damns them from birth, cursing them with a life of UGLY just by nature of being a man. Second, it puts women on a pedestal, and pedestals aren't cool. It's one more opportunity to set ridiculously high standards for women; and then when we don't measure up, it's because there's something "wrong" with us. How about instead of putting anyone up on a pedestal or holding them to unrealistic standards, we all just treat people like... well, people?
5If They "Admit" That Men Are A-Holes...
Stop. Just stop. This comment usually comes from a girlfriend after a bad date or someone learns they just got cheated on. But there's a good chance that even a guy friend has so generously "admitted" that men are pigs, plain and simple.
...We All Have Bad Sides, And Quit Making Excuses.
Here's my issue with this one: For starters, pinpointing men as the problem wrongly puts all the blame on men. It takes two to tango, and placing all blame on one party is wrong on more than one level. Secondly, this comment is often used similarly to the excuse that "boys will be boys." As in, "What did you expect? He's a man. Men are assholes!" You're not excused from poor behavior because you're a man and men are assholes by nature (which, again, they are not).
The bottom line is that benevolent sexism is still sexism, even when it's couched in statements that are meant to be "compliments." It sucks that we're still at a point where we need to call it out where we see it — but identifying the problem is the first step to change. And it's high time we started making that change.