3 Ways To Handle 'Benevolent Sexism' & Subtle Discrimination At Work

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smiling woman in a turtleneck

Studies about sexism indicate that it has two components. One is hostile sexism and the other is benevolent sexism.

When discussing discrimination between sexes, we usually talk about hostile sexism, which reflects overtly negative evaluations and stereotypes about gender.

Some hostile sexism examples include that men are stronger or more reliable than women, or that women belong in the kitchen.

What is benevolent sexism?

Benevolent sexism represents gender evaluations that may appear subjectively positive. But, in reality, they're damaging to people and gender equality at a broader scale.

For example, women returning from maternity leave being given less challenging work due to the assumption that they have more responsibilities at home. This may seem kind, but it also may make their work less competitive and therefore slow or even stop their progress toward advancement. 

Of course, hostile blatant sexism is wrong  but so is sexism that lacks malicious intent.

RELATED: What Happened When I Stopped Ignoring Sexist Comments For A Week

What does benevolent sexism look like in a subtly misogynistic workplace? 

Such supposedly good-natured sexism occurs when someone says something that seems supportive and positive, but it's based on traditional archaic gender stereotypes.

It often goes unnoticed because, unlike hostile sexism or other obvious forms of discrimination or biases, it's often smeared with consciously good intentions.

The deliverer, recipient, and possible bystanders may see it in that positive light. So, it does make you wonder how something so lovely and complimentary can feel so wrong.

When comments focus, for example, on an author’s appearance instead of the quality of their work, they can feel wrong.

Even though such remarks can sometimes feel good to hear, they can also cause unease, especially when one is keen to draw attention towards their work rather than personal attributes such as gender or appearance.

Benevolent sexism can be disorienting because it may appear supportive while simultaneously reinforcing and extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles, responsibilities, and capabilities.

It maintains gender inequality through the idealization of stereotypical qualities in women, such as neatness or nurturing.

Focusing on qualities that hold less social power and capital affords men the means of seeming to offer support to women while still maintaining traditional gender hierarchies.

Many women who are on the receiving end of such sexism tend to experience a 'double bind'.

The fake complimentary tone implies that perpetrators are often seen in a positive light and are unlikely to be labeled sexist.

Conversely, women who call out such a form of sexism are judged negatively as being cold or having a chip on their shoulders. Hence, due to its sheer nature, it often goes unnoticed or unchallenged.

Studies show that this form of sexism negatively influences women’s success and well-being.

For example, women got fewer questions right on a problem-solving test when the tester expressed such attitudes towards them. It appears their impaired performance created self-doubt about their competence.

The negative consequences can persist in subsequent situations, extending the implications of a single sexist encounter into new experiences and tasks.

The findings suggest that if women receive sexist feedback — even if it's consciously well-intentioned — they may feel as though they cannot meet the demands.

Women who received such feedback felt less skilled afterward than women who did not.

Of course, a true woman leader’s job is to rise above this and it's important to create that awareness. 

This is a callout to everyone to recognize disguised discrimination and its underlying damaging effects.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Recognize And Fight Sexism In The Workplace

How can one handle situations of subtle sexism? Here are 3 ways to deal with benevolent sexism.

1. It's OK to be offended.

Hearing discriminating and degrading "compliments" at work is not fun. Feeling angry, hurt, or frustrated is entirely reasonable.

Your feelings don’t need to be ignored or suppressed. Most people ignore responding.

Instead, try to practice radical candor and create awareness, so they don’t repeat it.

2. Expose the elephant in the room.

Confidently explain why you were troubled by the comment and how it reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and could hurt the team’s morale.

Articulate clearly that such remarks are inappropriate or not appreciated.

You don’t always have to call out such behavior at the moment. Take the time to organize your thoughts.

3. Stand up for others.

Everyone can jump in to rescue co-workers when they are targeted.

For example, if someone comments about a fellow lady co-worker, "We are fortunate to have her on the team to keep us organized. We need a mom around here", you could counter by highlighting her accomplishments and skills.

"We are all adults and can manage ourselves, but I do know that her efforts last year were responsible for increased revenue."

Publicly highlighting others’ accomplishments can help quell attempts to undermine their credibility subtly.

As we move forward in building and living in a more diverse and acceptable world, discrimination in all forms open and hidden must be abolished.

RELATED: This Simple Response Shut Down The Sexist Guy Where I Work — For Good

Bhavna Dalal is a master certified executive coach MCC ICF, speaker, and author of "Checkmate Office Politics" who helps people develop their leadership skills, such as executive presence, strategic thinking, influencing, and networking. To learn more about her work, visit her website or follow her on LinkedIn.

This article was originally published at Fortune India. Reprinted with permission from the author.