Many of us are familiar with the concept of misogyny: hatred of women. Sexism has another face, though: the belief that women are wonderful and must be protected from the big, bad world.
These two sides to sexism were given a name in a paper by Glick and Fiske (1996): ambivalent sexism. Ambivalent sexism consists of two types of attitude towards women: hostile sexism, and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is classic prejudice; benevolent sexism is the view that women are lovely, fluffy nurturing caregivers (or, as the paper puts it, intimacy-seeking and prosocial). Within these categories are three “sources” of ambivalent sexism, each with its corresponding hostile and benevolent face.
First, paternalism. Paternalism is theorised to come in two forms. Dominant paternalism is the idea that men should control women, while protective paternalism is the notion that men should protect women.
Second, gender differentiation. Competitive gender differentiation is a set of beliefs that bolster the idea that men are the better sex, while complementary gender differentiation, its benevolent counterpart, focuses on the “equal but different” myth, wherein women have their own, special roles in the kitchen.
Finally, heterosexuality. The theory of ambivalent sexism acknowledges that a major source of sexism is the hegemonic heterosexual ideal. Heterosexual hostility is the viewing of women as sex objects and fear of female sexual power, while intimate heterosexuality romaticises this objectification and sees men as incomplete without a woman.
The theory therefore provides a fairly comprehensive account of sexism. It does not just stop at theorising.
Measurement of ambivalent sexism
Ambivalent sexism is measured by a questionnaire called the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI). This measure was subjected to the rigorous development and validation standards typically used in questionnaire development (for those interested in methodology, it is described fully in the Glick and Fiske paper, which is available in full without paywall).
The ASI consists of 22 items; 11 in each category. Examples of questions which tap hostile sexism are “Once a man commits, she puts him on a tight leash” or a reverse-scored item “Feminists are not seeking more power than men“. Reverse scoring allows researchers to check if participants are just selecting the same response for every item on a questionnaire, and also help to test the reliability of the measure.
Examples of questions which tap into benevolent sexism include “A good woman should be set on a pedestal“, “Women have a quality of purity few men possess“, and “Men are complete without women“. Spot the reverse-scored item.
The Glick and Fiske study found that benevolent and hostile sexism were distinct, but they were also correlated with one another, suggesting that people who hold hostile sexist attitudes also hold benevolent sexist attitudes.
A problem with the ASI, though, is that it is dependent on self-reporting. Even in an anonymous questionnaire, research participants may give responses that make them seem socially desirable (i.e. less of a sexist knobend). Furthermore, a questionnaire may influence their behaviour or responses to other questions if the participant guesses that the study is about sexism. For that reason, some researchers prefer to modify the ASI to present scenarios or observe behaviour.
Effects of ambivalent sexism
Much of the ambivalent sexism research has focused on workplace sexism. Hostile sexism has been linked to negative evaluations of women candidates for a managerial job and higher recommendations for a male candidate for the same role. It has also been linked to greater tolerance of sexist events after hearing a sexist joke, which suggests that sexist humour does have real-world implications, for hostile sexist people, at least.
Benevolent sexism has many real-world implications. It, too, has been linked to low evaluations of women in the workplace, as women are seen to be neglecting their traditional roles as caregivers and homemakers. As well as this systemic negative effect on women, the impact of benevolent sexism extend to psychological effects. When experiencing benevolent sexism, women perform worse at various cognitive tasks, which suggests that the benevolent sexist attitude further reinforces a vicious circle which allows women to do worse.
What about teh menz?
A similar scale has been created for measuring attitudes towards men: the Ambivalence Towards Men Inventory, a 20-item questionnaire which also differentiates between hostile and benevolent attitudes. This measure has generated much less research than the ASI, with fewer real-world implications. However, using the measure, it has been found that feminists are not man-haters: in fact, women who identify as feminist score significantly lower on hostility towards men.
While the problems of hostile sexism are well-known, and generally viewed as less acceptable in our society, “benevolent” sexism, too, has huge implications for equality for women. Benevolent sexism still allows women to be viewed as objects, and unworthy of equal employment, yet it is thoroughly acceptable to express opinions that women are cute little walking wombs. This needs to change.