Sexism isn't always about sexual harassment or getting turned down for promotions; it can (and often does) manifest in far more subtle ways. Then again, I probably don't need to tell you that after the holidays. Fortunately, if you spent the last month desperately wishing you knew some ways to respond to benevolent sexism from your parents, you've come to the right place. Between the well-meaning extended family and all the old-fashioned attitudes flying around, the holidays are pretty much the peak season for benevolent sexism; however, it can occur anywhere and at any time, so it's worth having a few strategies for dealing with it up your sleeve. You never know when you might need them.
According to a theory developed in 1996 by psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, sexism can be divided into two types: Hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexism is fairly self-explanatory, encompassing negative behaviors like harassing, degrading, or threatening women. Basically, it's an antagonistic attitude toward women, and it's usually the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word "misogyny." Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, might seem positive on the surface, but it's ultimately rooted in the belief that women are inferior to men. When a woman is expected to quit her job to look after children, for example, it often comes down to a devaluation of her career — it's simply seen as less important than a man's. Besides, all women are inherently nurturing, right? (Wrong. Duh.)
Benevolent sexism is more than just irritating. According to a 2015 report for Harvard Business School's Gender and Work symposium, patronizing attitudes diminish women's work performance, and women who believe that men should fill the role of protector and provider tend to have fewer career ambitions of their own.
But benevolent sexism isn't just part of the working world. It's present in attitudes about family planning and even what women "should" (or shouldn't) be interested in. With that in mind, here are six ways to deal with benevolent sexism from your parents.
1. Remind Them You'll "Settle Down" When — And If — You Feel Like It
Everyone has to deal with interrogations by their parents about their love lives, but the pressure to settle down is particularly strong for women. If the first question on your parents' lips when you visit is about your love life, it's pretty sexist, even if they "mean well." Men's careers and hobbies get attention, but all too often, women are defined by their search for a husband (and it's almost always a husband, because heteronormativity). You can't change things overnight, but you can remind your parents that you'll settle down when you feel like it — if that ever happens.
2. Divide Chores Equally
The division of household labor is a tricky thing. I grew up in a feminist household, and I was still expected to do laundry and clean while my brother got to do fun stuff like mow the lawn. According to a study earlier this year, most Americans still believe that the brunt of housework should go to women, even when she has a full-time job or out-earns her partner.
If you're visiting your parents, chances are they'll get you to do some things around the house while you're there, and there's nothing as annoying as watching from the kitchen while all your male relatives cavort around the yard. In my experience, the best way to respond as an adult is by dividing chores equally — not along gender roles, but according to who's good at what. Take the lead and offer your skills where you think they'll be the most useful (or where you think you'll have the most fun).
3. Point Out The Problem With Overprotectiveness
A huge part of benevolent sexism is the idea that women need to be "protected" — usually from problems stemming from the patriarchy itself. If your parents start making jokes about bringing out the shotgun, remind them that the overprotective father thing just reinforces rape culture. It's nice that they're being protective, but fathers aren't responsible for their daughters' love lives.
4. Don't Let Yourself Be Defined By Men
If you're married or in a long-term relationship, it's common to be defined by that relationship. After all, marriage is still seen as one of the most important items to be checked off on a woman's bucket list. If your parents are always focusing on your relationship, remind them you have plenty of other things going on in your life. You exist as an independent human, not just someone's wife or girlfriend.
5. Don't Let Them Dismiss All Men
Benevolent sexism has two sides: Women are seen as pure and delicate, while men are aggressive beasts who can't control themselves. It's no wonder benevolent sexism usually makes people want to protect women. Don't let your parents paint all men as jerks any more than you let them talk about all women as delicate flowers. Perpetuating these stereotypes just encourages people to adhere to them, and that gets us nowhere as a society.
6. Know Your Value
Considering the cultural tendency to define women in relation to other people, it's easy to forget your own worth. If your parents tend to be dismissive of your aspirations and hobbies, remember that you're awesome on your own merit, and redirect the conversation accordingly. At worst, you build self-confidence, and at best, you help change your parents' attitudes toward all women — not just their daughter.