Is Being Nice Sexist?

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00684_00777Last week, President Obama created a media stir when he publicly said that California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris is “by far, the best looking attorney general. It’s true! C’mon…” Many people had a fit saying the President was sexist and a “pig” and equally as many people said everyone should just “lighten up” and complaining about how now you can’t even compliment a woman. As usual, everyone went right to the extremes.

While everyone was giving their usual online soapbox overreaction, they missed a critical blog that specifically addresses what makes the President’s comments inappropriate. It’s really interesting to me though, as I’m writing this, I can no longer access the blog written by Scientific American’s, Melanie Tannenbum.  I’ve tried everything — Googling it, searching her website, going back to the Tweet I reposted, scouring the Scientific American website, and trying to click on her original Twitter post. Nothing works and everything links back to Scientific American’s main page. It’s unfortunate, I think it’s a fantastic article every woman and man would benefit from reading and I always try to give people credit for their work. And, it was so apropos given it was released at the same time the President made his comments last week.

Huhhmm, maybe Scientific American or the President also thought it too closely called out what he did! The blog spoke to a term called “benevolent sexism” that was coined by two professors during their research in 1996. Contrary to the typical hostile sexism we all know, benevolent sexism is based on the idea that we treat women in ways we consider to be nice, but are actually just as harmful in keeping them suppressed. Open/hostile sexism, such as discrimination, unequal pay or violence against women are easy to identify, while benevolent sexism is usually delivered in the form of a compliment or another seemingly flattering characteristic, such as a women’s good looks, women are more gentle and nurturing in the home, telling your female co-worker she looks pretty in an outfit or something related to the historical notion that women need to be protected by men are all examples.

Update: Alas, no such luck on the conspiracy theory — the server was down! But, the good news is you can now read Melanie’s great post here and also watch a recent video from the The Huffington Post on the topic here.

All of these things seem to have a positive connotation, but according to Glick and Fisk’s research: “Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient. 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.” (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491-492)

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, but, never seen it put in such a clear light. There are subtle and often unconscious challenges both women and men face in the workplace in putting aside our natural gender assumptions. Men, do you typically hold the door for your female co-workers to enter a room or elevator first? Women, do you tend to be the ones who organize all the holiday parties and social events?

I think it is a challenge for both sexes because we all tend to try act with our natural manners and values we were raised with on how to treat people. Once in the workplace, however, those natural gender behaviors may actually be reinforcing to hold women back. This results in consequences for women who take action that is counter to the female stereotype.

For example, a woman “trying to get ahead” is called and regarded as a b*tch. This is because she’s acting outside of the societal norms of what a lady should act like versus being seen as a professional with drive and ambition.

So while I don’t think what the President said last week is terrible (plus, he has a strong track record on his support of women’s equality and has many women in the highest positions in his Cabinet), the fact remains that he was introducing California’s Attorney General at a professional function where the looks of men are rarely the topic of discussion. And, it was the opening of his introduction that I think best reflects the depth of challenges we face far worse than the “good-looking” part.

President Obama opened his remarks, with “You have to be careful to, first of all, to say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough…” That type of subversive language is indicative of how a women’s professional achievements, even being the attorney general of the largest state in our country, are still caveated as secondary achievements.

Blogger Joanne Bamberger said it best: “It’s time to make a pact. From now on, if you are in a professional setting and you are thinking in your heard, ‘Now that is one attractive man/woman/person/employee/colleague/business associate, etc.’, this is what you must do from this day forward: Keep. It. To. Yourself.”

Do you think benevolent sexism is or is not a problem and have you experienced, seen it? What should we do to start to change it?

On a funny note, the photo is from last Thursday here in San Francisco when the President drove by on my walk to work. At the time, I knew nothing about benevolent sexism and I’m sure the President had no clue he was about to make a huge gaffe. I just knew it took 15 minutes for the motorcade to go by so I could cross the street!