Are Men Who Smile too Much at Women and Hold the Door for Them Guilty of…Sexism?

A new study claims that there are two very different types of sexism that can be detected among men, with each form being distinguished by certain verbal and nonverbal expressions.

These two types of bias — “hostile sexism” and “benevolent sexism” — come along with important markers, researchers claim, positing that sexism isn’t always accompanied by nasty or negative treatment. As the Washington Post put it: “Men who put women on a pedestal may be the wolves in sheep clothing hindering gender equality.”

The study, titled, “Nonverbal and Verbal Expressions of Men’s Sexism in Mixed-Gender Interactions” and published in the journal “Sex Roles,” involved 27 pairs of male and female university-aged students.

The levels of sexism for the men were determined after giving them a test called the Ambivalent Sexism Index, which asked them to respond to a series of questions that helped figure out whether they embraced more of a hostile or a benevolent form of sexism.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

For the purposes of the study, each male and female duo was observed during a trivia game and an unstructured conversation during which their interactions were monitored. In the end, researchers found that men who have a high rate of benevolent sexism — which is well-intentioned, yet perpetuates inequality — tended to smile more and offer positive cues, the Washington Post reported.

“We examined the men’s nonverbal and verbal expressions during the unstructured interaction,” the abstract continued. “Naïve raters made impression ratings of the men’s nonverbal and verbal behavior, and trained coders counted the frequency of specific nonverbal cues.”

Researchers also used a word count software to analyze verbal content, finding, in the end, that more hostile sexism consisted of less smiling and less friendliness, whereas benevolent sexism was associated with more smiling and positive words.

“The effects held after controlling for men’s personality traits and partners’ nonverbal behavior,” the abstract claims. “Differential behavioral expressions of benevolent and hostile sexism have theoretical importance as we can examine how sexism maintains the status quo at the interpersonal level.”

Jim Goh, a graduate student at Northeastern University who coauthored the study, outlined the arguments presented within it, telling the Washington Post that hostile and benevolent sexism “work together to maintain inequality.”

“It’s a very paternalistic, protective view of women, and it seems kind of appealing as a sort of chivalry,” Goh said of benevolent sexism. “But it does contribute to inequality, because these men don’t expect women to achieve high goals.”

The study is especially interesting in that it presents the notion that positive attention can also — at least in the eyes of some — be a form of sexism, which is a point that co-author Judith Hall of Northeastern University noted.

“Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level,” she said, according to the Telegraph. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless.”

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