A new study shows a friendly smile may actually be benevolent sexism, an insidious behavior that's on the rise

Corbis Images

You'd know sexism if you saw it, right? Try this quiz. Which of the following scenarios shows sexist attitudes?

A) "Don't worry about missing the presentation last night, Jane. A woman's place is at home with her kids anyhow."

B) "Thank you so much for your presentation this morning, Jane! You and your smile are a ray of sunshine around this place!"

The answer is both A and B. Surprised? Many people are quite adept at picking up on overt "hostile sexisim" but according to a new study, most of us don't recognize the more insidious "benevolent sexism."

What Is Benevolent Sexism?

"Benevolent sexism is less negative on the surface and more paternalistic, reflecting a chivalrous and subjectively positive view of women," writes Judith Hall, Ph.D., one of the lead authors of the study. "Men who demonstrate this 'well-intentioned' sexism see women as warm and pure, yet helpless, incompetent, and in need of men's protection."

But beware: benevolent sexism is just as damaging as more aggressive sexism. One of the most pronounced ways men exhibit it is with comments about a woman's body, veiled as compliments. Here's an example: You give a killer presentation at work, walk out, and a male co-worker compliments your dress. In some settings (i.e. a date) that compliment could be appreciated, but in a work setting, it can reduce a woman's skill level down to her fashion sense.

"I think most people like a genuine, respectful compliment that is not sexually objectifying. The problem is when it's not given as a compliment or with respect or consent, and when it's objectifying," says Holly Kearl, Ph.D., a sexual harassment expert, activist, and author of two books on the subject. (And here's Your Guide to the Worst People in Every Office.)

Another problem: women are socialized from a young age to believe that male attention-and being considered beautiful-is the ultimate compliment. "Unfortunately, that idea is furthered by media and advertising," Kearl says. Challenge a compliment? That's like challenging the social norm-not to mention, women who do so can be labeled as "man haters" or "overly sensitive." This may be partly due to how ingrained this paternalistic mentality is in our society, the researchers say. In that sense, a man may not even recognize the effect his pseudo-compliments have. (No excuse.)

What to Do

In a world in which women still make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, benevolent sexism is anything but harmless. Kearl says the best thing you can do is become aware of how sexual harassment and sexism manifest and talk about the subjects. Push back on anything that makes you uncomfortable. Speak up to the powers that be at work. Open a conversation.

"There are still misconceptions that only certain women are harassed and that it's 'just a compliment,' but if women regularly told men how it makes them feel, it would raise awareness in friends, family, and peers, and those people would be more likely to look out for harassment and try to stop it," Kearl says.