Most people work with a number of men who care about gender equity and creating an inclusive workplace and society. Workplace sexism is an issue that men are committed to combating. On top of that, men likely understand how they and society benefit when they challenge sexism. They are confident in their ability to do so. When they hear a sexist remark at work, their instinct is to confront the speaker directly, questioning or rebutting the assumptions behind their remark.
A survey by Catalyst of 7,210 men working in 13 countries shows that in many cases, men like the ones described above are likely to respond to sexist workplace comments with “benevolent sexism”: attitudes, practices, and actions that seem positive — such as aid, flattery, and rewards — but that undercut their goal of supporting women at work, often under the pretense of providing them with help, protection, compliments, and affection.
Both benevolent sexism and its partner, hostile sexism, reinforce established gender norms and stereotypes about women’s and men’s identities, social roles, and behavior. While hostile sexism upholds traditional gender roles by punishing women who challenge them, benevolent sexism does so through well-intentioned actions. Each type of sexism uses different tactics, but the potential consequences for working women are the same, including possible negative impacts on mental and physical health, increased feelings of incompetence, and less career support. While men should continue interrupting sexism at work, they should also recognize that some responses may not be as effective as they think.
- Misbelief #1: Men are responsible for women.
- Misbelief #2: Men and women are different and complementary.
- Misbelief #3: Men’s personal lives depend on women.
Interrupting sexism at work
Clearly, many men want to be helpful, but they’re not well equipped to identify benevolent sexism in their own actions. So here are six things men — especially senior leaders — who want to interrupt sexism can do to check their assumptions and take a more rigorous approach when they engage in these conversations.
- Increase awareness.
- Deepen reflections.
- Apply knowledge.
- Praise others who interrupt benevolent sexism.
- Model equitable behavior.
- Start conversations.
With so many men already committed to combatting sexism, there is momentum for change. Course correcting to eliminate benevolent sexism from men’s responses to sexism at work is a vital step toward making that change a reality.