When Claire Goodwin was in college, she spent two years working for a company with over 500,000 employees, about 40 percent of whom were women. During her time there, Claire regularly experienced offers of help from her male co-workers—but it was help she had never asked for and didn’t need. Her colleagues would insist on lifting heavy packages for her, fixing computer issues she had already fixed, or re-explaining something to a customer that she had just explained to them—while she was still standing there.
“I believe the offers of help were intended to be innocuous or even well-intentioned, but the subtle ways in which they devalued female authority and competence were harmful to the work atmosphere and caused a lot of resentment across gender lines,” Claire says. “While it is true that some customers will cooperate faster or give greater respect to male authority, the solution is not to solidify that misconception by letting a man step in every time to make things move faster.”
Claire, now the office manager at Joseph Farzam Law Firm, is one of many women who have faced workplace sexism at the hands of co-workers who think they are being polite, helpful, or chivalrous. But this behavior actually undermines women and makes it more difficult for them to succeed at work.
“Chivalrous behavior that undermines women at work fits into the category of benevolent sexism,” says psychology professor Peter Glick. That’s different from hostile sexism, which is when someone believes women are inherently lesser than men or objectifies women and views them only as sexual objects.
As for what benevolent sexism actually means, Glick and psychology professor Susan Fiske explained it in a 1996 paper they wrote together: “We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure).”
Examples of benevolent sexism in the workplace include: asking women to take on planning or note-taking tasks because they are assumed to be better at these tasks than men, focusing on a woman’s appearance and personality rather than the results of her work, apologizing to only the women in the room after using a profane word, male colleagues insisting on taking over difficult tasks, and so on.
“Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient,” Glick and Fiske explained in their paper. “For example, a man’s comment to a female coworker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional.”
This type of benevolently sexist behavior can be difficult to deal with. In many cases, the perpetrators truly believe they are acting appropriately and don’t understand why women might find their behavior demeaning or disruptive. People don’t want to confront their co-workers or cause bad feelings, particularly in close-knit workplaces.
A number of women told HealthyWay they didn’t feel like they could discuss this sort of treatment with their bosses or HR departments because it wasn’t obviously offensive. But these actions, which get in the way of women doing their jobs and prevent them from bonding with their co-workers, are just another thing making workplaces unwelcoming to women.
Constant, everyday sexism can be incredibly frustrating.
“I’ve had my share of encounters with male bosses and colleagues who have walked right into the world of sexism, most often without any bad intentions,” says Lisa Barone, the chief marketing officer at creative agency Overit. She remembers men interrupting her, using sexist language, stepping in to “help explain what she meant” to clients, and generally treating her like she was less experienced, eloquent, or capable than her male colleagues.
“I had a colleague not long ago who spoke to me like I was an idiot,” she recalls. “It didn’t matter that I was equal to him on the company hierarchy or that I had owned my own agency previously; he was constantly explaining to me how business worked, how to present myself in meetings, how to dress so men would take me seriously, and generally how to exist in an office environment. He thought he was helping and showing me the ropes, very much oblivious that I didn’t need the assistance.”
Another major issue was men cutting her off in meetings. “Most men don’t realize they are doing it, but it happens a lot more to my female co-workers and to myself than to the other men in the room,” she says. “Men interrupt only to make the same point or to finish the thought I was trying to make. They, of course, then get the praise for the comment shared.”
Barone also says a number of men have exhibited white knight syndrome—treating her like a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued from an imaginary danger. “For example, a male colleague who expressed—loud—concern to another gentlemen that I am married, and therefore he should watch how he speaks to me,” she says. “In doing so, he implied the only reason the man was speaking to me was because he wanted to sleep with me; he also took away my own ability to set up my own boundaries or to stand up for myself if I felt I needed it. Before you act like a white horse, make sure one is wanted.”
Gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal, but it can be hard to crack down on sexism disguised as chivalry.
Nonetheless, these so-called harmless interactions can affect women’s career satisfaction, workplace happiness, and even their professional progress.
Research has suggested that women who came to expect benevolent sexism in their workplace “became unsure of themselves, got distracted, and consequently performed poorly.”
Women surrounded by male colleagues who seem to underestimate them, treat them as though they are delicate, and assume they cannot tackle difficult tasks may find themselves resentful. Women in this position must also dedicate time to finding ways to tackle this treatment, rather than focusing on their work.
“In the face of such circumstances now, I have learned to stand my ground,” says Claire. “I politely, but firmly, dismiss the ‘help,’ and proceed to show co-workers and customers alike that they don’t need a man—they have me.”
If a woman is being patronized in the workplace, this can also affect how her colleagues and customers view her. Research shows that people who witness a woman repeatedly being treated “chivalrously” by a man—for example, he insists on pulling out chairs for her—will view that woman as less independent.
A number of organizations are working to change companies for the better by making them less sexist.
Eileen Scully was fed up with experiencing sexism in the workplace. So she founded a consulting firm, The Rising Tides, which focuses on ways to improve companies for women. She says reshaping corporate culture can make a tremendous difference.
“A big part of my consulting practice looks at what defines each individual corporate culture,” she says. “What are [the] systemic problems, what [behaviors] are invisible to the executive layer, and what practices and policies are driving behaviors? For example, at its most basic level, what positions of power and influence do women at your organization hold? How often are women present during strategic planning and decision sessions?”
Once she has gathered that information, her firm looks at the structures and practices that make a workplace sexist or hostile to women. They then figure out what changes the company can commit to, as well as a reasonable time frame for implementing these changes.
“I also encourage companies and individuals who want to invest in their women to look carefully at the companies they hire or who sponsor the workshops to which they’re sending employees,” she says. “Right now, many of them are still run by all men. And I find it a little disingenuous that they’re profiting from hosting women’s leadership sessions, but they’re not doing anything inside. We can do much better than that.”
Scully says organizations need to truly want to make lasting change—not just tick a box and say an issue is resolved.
Oftentimes, people are really just trying to be kind to their co-workers, and many people who are benevolently sexist genuinely don’t realize their behavior is a problem.
But if something makes you uncomfortable or affects your job, you should feel free to say something. It’s important that you don’t feel discriminated against at work—and chances are, your co-workers want you to feel valued, too. Simply flag the behavior you found problematic and explain what the issue is. While it’s annoying that you sometimes need to be the agent of change, rather than people independently recognizing their own bad behavior, advocating for yourself in the workplace can be invaluable.