The secret to a man’s attitude about women may lie in his smile, reports a research team from Northeastern University.
The new study, published in the journal Sex Roles, shows both sides of sexism — hostile and benevolent. It’s certainly more stressful to deal with an angry misogynist, but even benevolent sexism can make relationships difficult.
Hostile sexism, researcher Judith Hall, Ph.D., and Jin Goh explain, is characterized by a clear dislike of women. It’s often revealed through domineering, derogatory or controlling behavior designed to give a man power over a woman.
Benevolent — or the kinder, gentler — sexism, may appear positive on the surface and more paternalistic. Men who demonstrate this “well-intentioned” sexism see women as warm and pure, yet helpless, incompetent and in need of men’s protection.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
To detect the benevolent sexism, Hall and Goh matched men’s facial expressions, word choices and attitudes to see how they really felt about women they had just met. The study is the first to capture verbal and nonverbal expressions of both types of sexism.
The researchers brought together 27 pairs of men and women. They filmed the couples as they were introduced, played a trivia game together and sat down to chat afterward. They counted and assessed verbal and nonverbal cues, including smiles, and used computer software to analyze reactions.
The women in the study found the hostile sexist men easy to spot. They were less friendly in their speech and interactions. The benevolent sexists, on the other hand, were most often perceived as warm, friendly and likely to smile. They also used more positive and emotional words and were more likely to patiently wait for the women to answer the trivia questions.
Both groups of men, however, expressed attitudes that showed little respect for women’s intellect, ability or right to receive equal treatment.
“While many people are sensitive to sexist verbal offenses, they may not readily associate sexism with warmth and friendliness,” said Goh in a Northeastern University interview.
“Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.”
“Benevolent sexism perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level,” Hall said. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing and harmless.”
The bottom line: Spend lots of time getting to know a man before you decide he is right for you. He may appear to be a gentleman who respects your life goals and desires, but you can’t judge by early impressions.