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Fabio Lorenzi-Cioldi and Clara Kulich
This version of the article includes more references than the original.
Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences
University of Geneva
Boulevard du Pont d'Arve 40
Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences
University of Geneva
Boulevard du Pont d'Arve 40
This article first reviews the historical rise and the developments of psychological research
on sexism which led to the differentiation between biological sex and cultural gender, and
highlights commonalities between gender relations and other status-based intergroup
relations. Old-fashioned, overt and explicit forms of sexism are then distinguished from
contemporary, more subtle, and implicit forms. The latter are characterized by ambivalence
of hostility and benevolence towards women. The final section discusses major behavioral
consequences of the different forms of sexism, emphasizing the harmful impact of
benevolence on women's feelings of self-worth and competence, and actual performances.
Keywords: ambivalence, benevolence, discrimination, gender, hostility, prejudice, role
congruity, social status, stereotypes, stereotype threat, stigmatization, women.
This copy is for non-commercial and educational use only. Copy-rights are by Elsevier. The
original chapter can be found in and cited as:
Lorenzi-Cioldi, F., Kulich, C., 2015. Sexism. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief),
International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 21.
Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 693–699. Doi : 10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.24089-0
Historical roots: The “discovery” of sexism. Unequal treatment of individuals based
on their sex is probably as old as humankind. However, the social recognition that unequal
treatment is discriminatory, and the ensuing notion of “sexism”, is far more recent. Long
before gender inequality was recognized as a societal problem, early feminists such as
Christine de Pizan in the 15th century in France, Mary Wollstonecraft in the 17th century in
Britain, and more recently Simone de Beauvoir, only to name a few, denounced the
arbitrariness and the illegitimacy of the hierarchical organization of gender differences in
the society. But it was not until a speech on “Women and the undergraduate” by Pauline M.
Leet at an US university in 1965 that the term sexism entered lay people’s vocabulary, and
became a matter of debates. Leet explained this notion by establishing a parallel with
racism, a construct that people were already familiar with:
“When you argue… that since fewer women write good poetry this justifies their
total exclusion, you are taking a position analogous to that of the racist — I
might call you in this case a “sexist”… Both the racist and the sexist are acting as
if all that has happened had never happened, and both of them are making
decisions and coming to conclusions about someone’s value by referring to
factors which are in both cases irrelevant.” (p. 3, quoted in Shapiro 1985, p. 6)
Sexism is a form of prejudice or discriminatory treatment based on a person's sex
(e.g., Ku 2010). The coinage of this term occurred in concomitance with the realization that
the persistent social disadvantage of women urged a collective response. Until World War
Two, the term “minority” typically referred to the numerical inferiority of national and
linguistic groups. Only in the 50s its meaning made a significant shift to label groups that are
inferior in status, or are stigmatized, such as women, people with disabilities, or the elder.
Since then, the notion of minority has become “a general term for all groups subjected to
prejudice and discrimination” (Meyers 1984, p. 1). This was also a starting point for the
study of prejudice (e.g., Adorno et al. 1950; Allport 1954) and its underlying motivations
originating in intergroup relations (e.g., Tajfel 1981).
When interest in studying sex differences began to grow, sexist ideology was
embedded in the questions asked. Society and researchers until the beginning of the 20th
century assumed that physiological and biological characteristics such as males’ bigger brain
size and physical strength were evidence of men's superiority. Early research used such
characteristics to examine their role in predicting intelligence (see Gould 1981). But
extensive research by Terman and his collaborators could not show any evidence of
consistent differences in intelligence between men and women, which resulted in the
revision of intelligence tests based on this assumption (Terman & Merrill 1937). Many
subsequent empirical studies indulged in identifying and quantifying sex differences in
behavior and personality. These efforts were summarized and interpreted by Maccoby and
Jacklin in their authoritative book The Psychology of Sex Differences (1974). Their
comprehensive summary of the literature led them to conclude that most beliefs about
existing sex differences, such as “girls are more sociable than boys” or “boys are better at
cognitive tasks”, were not supported by empirical research. Overall, this research showed
more similarities than differences between the sexes. Maccoby and Jacklin nonetheless
acknowledged the existence of specific differences such as men’s superiority in math and
spatial aptitudes, and women’s superiority in verbal tasks. However, instead of advocating
causes related to innate characteristics of the sexes, they suggested that such differences
could be adequately accounted for by socialization processes and stereotypes about women
and men. As a consequence, further research in the social sciences began to focus on
learning processes, rather than biological sex, as factors influencing the observed sex
Maccoby and Jacklin’s work was criticized due to its narrative approach. It was not
until recently that Hyde (2005) conducted a more sophisticated analysis of this past and the
subsequent literature. Despite the use of more rigorous meta-analytic methodologies, her
analysis basically corroborated Maccoby and Jacklin’s conclusions. The findings allowed for
the conclusion that, overall, “Women and men are more alike than they are different”
(2005: p. 581), and that differences between the sexes are smaller than the differences that
can be found within each sex. Though advocating a provocative gender similarities
hypothesis, Hyde likewise mentioned exceptions, for instance motoric behaviors and
sexuality, but most importantly differences in self-attributions of traits associated with two
key-dimensions of stereotypes: warmth and competence. Women were shown to develop
interdependent and relational self-construals, while men appeared to focus on
independence and agency. As we know today, these differences derive from the gendered
treatment of men and women. Contemporary research on sexism is highly influenced by the
distinction between these two types of self-construals, and focuses on the negative
consequences of applying them when distinguishing between men and women (e.g., Wood
& Eagly 2010).
The shift from biological approaches of sex differences to social and cultural ones
urged a revision of concepts and terminology. Differences between men and women that
could be accounted for by stable biological factors are since denoted with the term sex,
while differences due to more malleable cultural factors are denoted with the term gender
(Deaux 1985; Unger 1979). An important discovery in empirical research was that social
context moderates differences that were thought to be rooted in the biological sex, thus
making the term gender more accurate. As Deaux and Major write “Now you see them, now
you don’t” (1987: p. 369), meaning that in certain contexts we observe differences in
attitudes and behaviors between men and women, while in other contexts these differences
vanish. A seminal experiment by Goldberg (1968) showed that evaluations of a piece of
work (e.g., an article) varied as a function of the presentation of the author as female or
male. Thus, it was not the actual competence of the article’s author that led to perceptual
and stable differences in the article’s quality, but the observers’ precognitions in the form of
gender stereotypes. Although Goldberg’s findings have suffered from a lack of replication
(see Swim et al. 1989) the idea of social context as an important moderator of sex
differences crucially influenced the upcoming work.
The social status dimension. In virtually all countries around the world, men are in
socially dominant positions relative to women (Glick 2006; Sidanius & Pratto 1999). From
this observation, and drawing on the evidence of contextual effects on sex differences, most
work on sexism has focused on the status differentials between men and women. It is of no
surprise that the mere use of the term 'sexism' conveys the idea of discrimination against
women, not men. Although there are incidences of sexism against men, that is reverse
sexism, the consequences of gender discrimination are usually psychologically more harmful
for the powerless (Schmitt et al. 2002). References to sexism against men are seldom (see
Ku 2010). The Ambivalence Toward Men Inventory (Glick & Fiske 1999) is one of the few
attempts to measure sexist beliefs against men (see also Vandello & Bosson 2012).
Despite differences between the gender status-system and other long-term status
systems, notably ethnicity, age, or social class (see Fiske 2010), the study of status
hierarchies has provided valuable insights for understanding how gender operates at a more
general level (see Lorenzi-Cioldi 2006; 2009; Ridgeway & Bourg 2004). The assumption that
men have higher status and greater power than women is central to many social
psychological analyses of sexism (Wood & Eagly 2010). Stereotypic beliefs about men and
women are firmly rooted in society’s gendered division of labor, and therefore in the social
structure (Guimond et al. 2013; Eagly & Steffen 1984). In general, less prestigious roles and
occupational domains (e.g., nurse) ask for communal behavior, whereas more prestigious
ones (e.g., bank trader) ask for agentic behavior. For instance, Johannesen and Eagly (2002)
demonstrated that participants attribute to people higher scores of positive and negative
agency, rather than communion, as a function of the target's professional status. The diffuse
knowledge that men and women are unevenly distributed in the occupational hierarchy
boosts the belief that, in actuality, men are agentic and women are communal. Accordingly,
perceivers come to believe that men and women possess the personality characteristics that
are required to perform their respective social roles. Overall, then, the empirical evidence
shows that men and women are attributed traits and characteristics deriving from implicit
assumptions about their respective social status, overriding to a large extent the role of
biological sex. In a seminal demonstration of this central hypothesis of social role theory,
Eagly and Wood (1982) showed that, knowing only the gender of the protagonist of an
influence scenario, participants inferred higher status for men than for women. In contrast,
when both genders were portrayed in an ostensibly similar occupational role, the impact of
gender stereotypes was reduced (see Eagly 1987). Likewise, Lorenzi-Cioldi (1997)
demonstrated this pre-eminence of status cues in the interpretation of male and female
behavior in a study in which participants rated two managers and two employees of each
sex on agentic and communal traits. Participants matched the traits according to the
targets’ professional roles, rather than their sex, judging both male and female managers as
more agentic than the employees.
A host of analyses of secondary data provides further support to this social role
hypothesis. To illustrate, Twenge (2001) examined assertiveness among women using
survey data gathered from 1931 to 1993. She found that levels of this agentic personality
trait varied according to historical periods, with higher levels corresponding to women's
increased access to the labor market. Current societal trends toward more representative
numbers of women in higher professional strata (see Ferrary 2013) allow for the prediction
that differences in judgments about men and women tend to fade away (see Diekman &
Eagly 2000; see critical mass in Kanter 1977). In particular, the greater variety of social roles
enacted by women should be conducive to beliefs of an increased agency of women's
Types of sexism
As we mentioned in the former section, sexist attitudes are rooted in gender
stereotypes that ascribe higher status to men than to women. Thus, the concept and the
measurement of sexism are largely concerned with gender asymmetries disadvantaging
women. The contemporary literature lingers over a distinction between overt and more
subtle forms of sexism. In what follows, we describe developments in the study of prejudice
and stereotypes which will inform the understanding of the current construct and measures
of sexism in the field of social psychology.
Evolution of definitions of prejudice. Early approaches considered prejudice as “an
antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization” (Allport 1954: p. 9). Prejudice
was therefore intrinsically negative and hostile. However, research showed that most social
groups are also ascribed positive characteristics. For instance, Myrdal suggested, already in
1944, that contradicting norms expressed by the American Creed produced ambivalent
attitudes about racial minorities. When people express negative prejudice, they tend to
express at the same time sympathy, such as concerns for unjust treatment (see Katz et al.
1973, for a review). Katz and his collaborators were the first to systematically investigate the
effects of prejudice, sympathy, and the combination of the two (i.e., ambivalence; for race,
see Katz et al. 1973; for individuals with a disability, see Katz et al. 1977).
The focus on the ambivalence of prejudice was further triggered by difficulties
encountered in those days’ techniques to measure prejudice. Such measures were explicit,
typically asking people to associate traits to various social groups (e.g., aggressive, lazy,
intelligent, etc.; see Katz & Braly 1933). However, after World War Two people’s sensitivity
to minority issues increased. Egalitarianism became a social norm condemning the use of
overt stereotypical generalizations based on group membership. Observations in the 50s
alluded to the fact that, at least in higher social classes, participants knew about the political
correctness of egalitarian attitudes (McKee & Sherriffs 1957). In concomitance with the
feminist and anti-racism movements in the 70s, various types of –isms gained visibility and
became blameworthy. As a consequence, the tendency to endorse overt prejudice against
women declined over the years (Spence & Hahn 1997; Twenge 1997). Yet, in this process,
more subtle forms of prejudice came into being, asking for a revision of the definition of this
concept and of its measurement (see Maass et al. 2000; Sigall & Page 1971). Such a revision
was first met by Katz and Hass (1988), in the racial domain. In the gender domain, Guttentag
and Secord (1983) advocated the necessity to take into account ambivalence arising from
protective attitudes towards women. A few years later, Glick and Fiske (1996) presented the
first psychometric scale integrating these principles (Ambivalent Sexism Inventory).
As a result of these developments, sexism, though still defined in terms of prejudice
and discriminatory behavior, now includes combinations of hostility and benevolence.
Accordingly, Glick and Hilt define prejudice as “the implicit or explicit attitude that a group
deserves inferior status. The cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of prejudiced
attitudes may (for the prejudiced perceiver) be subjectively favorable, unfavorable, or
ambivalent in their orientation toward the target group, yet they all serve to promote and
maintain that group’s subordination.” (2000: p. 245).
Ambivalence in sexism. Early research on sex differences and stereotypes helps to
understand the ambivalence of modern manifestations of sexism. The investigation of the
content of gender stereotypes has its origin in Terman and Miles' work. Initially, these
authors endeavored to examine sex differences in intelligence. But in their subsequent and
most known work, Sex and Personality (1936), they took a different stand, conceding that
research should rather focus on differences between male and female temperaments. In
their Test of Attitudes and Interests, they assumed that masculinity and femininity are
opposing ends of a single continuum, that this continuum is anchored in biology, and that
temperaments can be assessed by asking men and women about their emotions,
knowledge, and opinions. Deviations from the endorsement of the adequate masculine or
feminine temperament were then considered as pathologies (i.e., indications of inversion
and homosexuality, and of a variety of psychological maladjustments). Parsons and Bales
(1955) likewise drew parallels between masculinity and instrumental roles in professions,
and between femininity and expressive roles in the family, offering a broader sociological
perspective on gender stereotypes. Broverman and collaborators later took up this idea in
their Questionnaire of Sex-Role Stereotypes (Broverman et al. 1972). Their findings have long
been considered as strong evidence for stereotypes portraying women as “less competent,
less objective, and less logical than men”, and men as “lacking interpersonal sensitivity,
warmth, and expressiveness in comparison to women.” (p. 75).
In the beginning of the 70s, however, this one-dimensional (and bipolar) view of the
masculinity-femininity construct began to be questioned. Bem (1974), as well as Spence
(Spence et al. 1974), empirically demonstrated that masculinity and femininity could be
more adequately represented as two independent dimensions. As a consequence, the
avenue was open for an individual to conceive of him/herself as possessing traits belonging
to both personality types. With this notion of "psychological androgyny" as a self-conception
allowing for behavioral flexibility and better self-esteem, the simultaneous presence of
masculine and feminine traits in each person, regardless of biological sex, was not
considered abnormal anymore (see Lorenzi-Cioldi 1994, 1996). Later conceptions of the
androgynous person stressed the non-use of a gender-schema (Bem 1981), supporting the
ideal of a gender-blind society (i.e., we are all the same) endowed with the potential to
overcome sexist attitudes and behaviors.
Let us turn to our initial question of how sexism is becoming increasingly ambivalent.
Following the literature and their own investigations, Fiske, Glick and their collaborators
propose that competence and warmth are key-dimensions of group stereotypes in their
stereotype content model (Fiske et al. 2002). In what can be considered as an extension of
Eagly's social role theory, they show that members of high-status groups are typically
described as agentic (i.e., influential, independent, competent), while members of low-
status groups are mainly described as communal (i.e., warm, caring, nurturing). Hence, this
model implies that men and women are considered as complementing each other. But they
are not equal. Men are attributed higher status, influence, and power, and receive respect
for their agentic qualities, making them suitable candidates for leadership positions and
other prestigious social roles. In contrast, women are praised for their interpersonal skills,
which confer them positivity (see the so-called “women are wonderful” effect; Eagly &
Mladinic 1994). But at the same time, this ostensible liking of women reveals a lack of
agency, and thus competence, resulting in disrespect (Fiske et al. 1999). In an apparent
paradox, adulating women for their interpersonal skills undermines their evaluation in
situations where competence is demanded. As a result, women are perceived to be suitable
for low-status roles (e.g., domestic and health-care activities), and less suitable for high-
status roles (e.g., decision-making positions). In sum, the positive connotation of the
warmth dimension fuels ambivalence in a context where competence is relevant, and leads
to the actual devaluation of women.
Glick and Fiske (1996) argue that the negative component of the stereotype is
reflected in hostile sexism, and the positive one in benevolent sexism. A combination of the
two produces ambivalence: The allegedly positive message communicated by benevolence
masks the underlying hostile aim to dominate women and to keep them at their place. For
example, research has shown that women may be applauded for their performances, yet
resources are not allocated (Gervais & Vescio 2007), or are even misattributed to others
(Vescio et al. 2010). Benevolent sexism expresses itself through protective paternalism,
complementary gender differentiation, and heterosexual intimacy (Glick & Fiske 1996).
Protective and complementary aspects of benevolent sexism impact on the perception of
women as needing protection and being unable to do things by themselves. Furthermore,
they create expectations about the course of social interaction (see Goffman 1979). On the
one hand, men are expected to exert power over women, to protect and to take care of
them, putting them into a dependent position. On the other hand, women are compelled to
assist this behavior by showing their affection and subordination to men. Indeed, research
demonstrated that women perceived benevolent-sexist men as more attractive than
hostile-sexist (Kilianski & Rudman 1998; Kulich et al. 2013), and non-sexist men (Bohner et
al. 2010; Montañés et al. 2013a; Montañés et al. 2013b). Expectations of traditional gender
roles, which figure men as protectors and women as protégées, should thus create the least
conflict and the higher attraction between genders. In line with this reasoning, experimental
findings have shown that women face more difficulties to resist benevolent than hostile
treatment (e.g., Barreto & Ellemers 2013; Becker & Wright 2011). In addition, heterosexual
interdependency and sexual attraction between men and women deepens the influence of
such softer forms of prejudice in gender relations. The gender hierarchy is unlikely to be
secured only through open hostility and subjugation. It is more efficiently maintained by
coupling it with paternalism (Glick & Fiske 1996; Rudman & Glick 2008).
Hostile gender relations are learned and applied at an early age. At nine months,
children discriminate between male and female faces (Leinbach & Fagot 1993), and voices
(Poulin et al. 1994). At two to three years, they label themselves as boys or girls (Slaby &
Frey 1975; Thompson 1975), and they know gender stereotypes related to objects (e.g.,
toys, clothes, work; Huston 1983). At kindergarten age, they become aware of power
differences between genders, associating boys with power and negative traits (e.g., strong,
fast, aggressive, cruel) and girls with fear, helplessness, and positive traits (e.g., needs help,
nice, affectionate) (see Rubel & Martin 1998). This goes hand in hand with the development
of negative attitudes towards, and dislike of, the other sex (e.g., Powlishta 1995), and
avoidance of interaction and play with the other sex (e.g., Maccoby & Jacklin 1974). By the
age of five, children have internalized that gender is a stable category. Accordingly, they
begin to put emphasis on their gender identity, and engage in competitive forms of gender
differentiation with the aim to show that the ingroup is better than the outgroup (Glick &
Hilt 2000; Rudman & Glick 2008). It is only with the rise of romantic sexual attraction, at
about age 11, that gender relations become more complex and ambivalent, because
positive emotions mix with the habitual hostility. According to correlational findings,
romantic experiences are related to sexism, creating hostility against girls in adolescent girls
and benevolence towards girls in adolescent boys (de Lemus et al. 2010). Glick and Hilt
(2000) suggest that during puberty boys develop ambivalent feelings towards girls that
include both hostility and benevolence. They direct benevolence towards girls who
correspond to the feminine stereotype and whom they want to interact with, and hostility
towards girls that do not comply with their expectations. In contrast, girls demonstrate
awareness of status differences. They perceive higher power in boys, thus experiencing less
satisfaction from interactions with boys. Consequently, they hold onto rather hostile
attitudes towards boys. However, these attitudes can be undermined when girls enter a
heterosexual relationship, which may produce ingroup hostility (de Lemus et al., 2010).
Thus, adolescents enter the gender dynamics known for adults in such that women are
rewarded by men with benevolence when they behave in line with traditional gender roles.
The acknowledgement that the negative effects of prejudice are not solely due to
hostile attitudes and behaviors towards women, but can also derive from positive attitudes,
was an important step in the development of sexism measures. Such measures can be
roughly partitioned into two historical phases. The first phase focused on feminine and
masculine personality traits which were supposed to fit biological sex. In the second phase,
measures encompassed more explicit attitudes towards women, and these measures were
often used to generate hypotheses about discriminatory behavior towards women, or to
relate them to other measures of social inequality.
First phase. Following Terman and Miles' (1936) and Broverman et al.'s (1972)
attempts to measure male and female temperaments and personalities, research produced
much evidence about social attitudes toward the sexes. Jarrett and Sherriffs (1953) offered
one of the initial attempts to assess, by means of a list of positive and negative behaviors,
attitudes “toward the relative 'value' of men and women in our culture” (p. 41). The authors
assumed that 17 of the items were stereotypically male (e.g., “Proportional to their
numbers, most responsible for auto accidents in 1939 were...”), 17 stereotypically female
(e.g., “Having the most understanding for the needs of children are...”), and 24 neutral.
Participants judged for each item if it was true for men or for women. Results showed that,
overall, participants gave more favorable scores to men compared to women. This finding
points to the intriguing fact that both men and women show similar tendencies to value the
higher-status group. Sherriffs and Jarrett (1953) conducted another study with similar items,
and concluded that “stereotypes are substantially the same whether held by men or by
women.” (p. 167). Moreover, they were surprised to find that only 5 of the 24 presumably
neutral items were actually judged as neutral. They concluded that “virtually no behavior or
quality escapes inclusion in either a male or a female 'stereotype'” (p. 167). In an attempt to
overcome some methodological deficiencies of these studies, McKee and Sherriffs (1957)
asked psychology students to rate men and women on a series of adjectives. Overall, men
were again evaluated more favorably than women, an effect that was even stronger among
women than men, suggesting a consensual ascription of legitimacy to the gender hierarchy.
Second phase. This historical phase is divided up in three generations of sexism
measures. The first aims to reveal the content of hostility towards women; the second aims
to measure hostility in more indirect ways in order to meet social desirability concerns that
make people hide prejudice; finally, the current generation integrates the dynamics of
First generation – Old-fashioned attitude scales. The 70s and 80s witnessed the
publication of a number of well-designed gender attitudes scales. These scales were widely
used and translated into different languages, which allowed for the first time a
comprehensive test of their reliability and validity. They can be considered old-fashioned
because they measure traditional attitudes about gender roles and women’s inferiority,
notably in competence. Examples are Spence et al.’s (1973) Attitudes Toward Women Scale
(AWS; e.g., “Women should be concerned with their duties of childbearing and house
tending rather than with desires for professional or business careers”), Rombough and
Ventimiglia’s (1981) Old-fashioned Sexism Scale (OFS; e.g., “Women should stay at home
and care for the children”; “Men make better engineers than women”), and Beere et al.’s
(1984) Sex-Role Egalitarianism Scale (SRES), with items assessing attitudes toward women
and men in both traditional and nontraditional roles in various domains (marital, parental,
employment, social-heterosexual, and educational).
Second generation – Modern sexism scales. Gender stereotypes have been quite
stable over time, and traditional expressions of hostile sexism in public discourse and sexual
violence are still present in the 21st century. Nonetheless, in western societies, the
restrictive nature of expectations about men’s and women’s social roles and behaviors has
loosened up after the feminist movements of the 70s and 80s. Thus, more indirect ways of
expressing sexism have become common. Two widely used instruments, Neosexism Scale
(NS; Tougas et al. 1995) and Modern Sexism Scale (MSS; Swim et al. 1995) illustrate this
renewal. Indeed, these instruments tap opinions about egalitarian practices, rather than
asking plain questions about women’s competence or gender roles. Tougas et al. define
neosexism as a “manifestation of a conflict between egalitarian values and residual negative
feelings toward women” (1995: p. 843; e.g., “Women will make more progress by being
patient and not pushing too hard for change”; “Due to social pressures, firms frequently
have to hire underqualified women”). Likewise, subscales from the MSS deal with the Denial
of continuing discrimination (e.g., “Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in
the United States”), the Antagonism toward women's demands (e.g., “It is easy to
understand the anger of women's groups in America”), and the Resentment about special
favors for women (e.g., “Over the past few years, the government and news media have
been showing more concern about the treatment of women than is warranted by women's
actual experiences.”). Nonetheless, MSS still includes measures of the traditional, more
overt sexism (e.g., “Women are generally not as smart as men”).
Third generation – Ambivalence. The above scales still represent clearly negative
statements, either overt or more subtle. None of these measures managed to integrate the
ambivalent nature of modern prejudice that was initially called into attention by Guttentag
and Secors (1983). This requirement was met by ambivalent sexism theory (Glick & Fiske
1996). Central to this theory is the softer and friendlier type of sexism conveyed through
benevolence. Traditional hostile sexism is characterized by its overtly negative nature that
emphasizes women’s inferiority to men, whereas benevolent sexism emphasizes status
differences by affectionate and patronizing behaviors (Glick & Fiske 1996; Rudman & Glick
2008). Benevolent sexism is potentially equally harmful as the hostile, but through a
different process. Its ostensibly flattering and friendly nature conceals the underlying
expression of dominance, making it more likely to be accepted by women (Moya et al.
2007). Benevolent sexism meets social norms that demand that men protect women. It
legitimizes status differences, and undermines potential conflicts and tensions (see Lau et al.
Hostile and benevolent forms of sexism occur most often side by side. Indeed,
benevolence contributes to mask the negativity of hostility (e.g., Barreto & Ellemers 2013;
Swim et al. 2005). Thus, the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (Glick & Fiske 1996) includes a
Hostile sexism subscale (HS; e.g., “Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as
hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for 'equality'") and a
Benevolent sexism subscale (BS). The latter has three subcomponents that correspond to
the above-mentioned characteristics of benevolence: Protective paternalism (e.g., “Women
should be cherished and protected by men”), Complementary gender differentiation (e.g.,
“Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess”), and Heterosexual intimacy
(e.g., Men are complete without women”). Across 16 nations, Glick et al. (2004) found HS
and BS to be highly correlated. HS predicted negative trait ascriptions to women, and BS
positive trait ascriptions, thus supporting the view of prejudice as an antipathy plus an
affectionate patronizing component.
Collectively, the measures described so far can be considered as explicit measures of
sexism. In concomitance with these measures, various scholars have argued that expression
of opinions is highly contingent on social desirability concerns. Furthermore, attitudes may
not be consciously accessible. Self-deception may drive people to negate or hide prejudice,
or simply be not aware of their actual prejudice. In the 80s and 90s, a variety of alternative,
mostly implicit measures, were developed in response to these new challenges. The most
popular measure is the Implicit Association Test. This computerized instrument was
originally proposed by Greenwald, Banaji, and Nosek (Greenwald et al. 1998). Participants
are asked to either press a key when two stereotypically linked words appear on a screen
(e.g., a female name and a feminine profession), or to press another key when there is no
stereotypical association between the words. If reaction times are faster for stereotypical
associations than for non-stereotypical ones, it is inferred that the individual is prejudiced.
Other studies have measured unconscious non-verbal behaviors that express prejudice (e.g.,
de Lemus et al. 2012). Overall, however, clear demonstrations of the ecological validity of
such measures are still awaited.
Consequences of sexism
Sexism sustains social asymmetries in gender relations that typically advantage men.
Sexist attitudes and opinions may produce discriminatory treatment such as unequal hiring
and promotion practices, but also more extreme forms such as physical aggression and
sexual violence. Past research has demonstrated a variety of detrimental discriminatory
effects of sexism. The previous discussion of types of sexisms is important because each of
the types maintains gender hierarchies in specific ways (Jackman 1994). In particular, it is
important to distinguish between effects of hostile and benevolent sexism. One crucial
difference is that HS is more easily challenged than BS. The sexist nature of benevolence is
particularly difficult to identify as a corollary of discriminatory behavior (Barreto & Ellemers
2013; Kobrynowicz & Branscombe 1997). Women are themselves vulnerable to, and thus
accepting, this persuasive influence style. Conversely, they may more easily confront
hostility (Moya et al. 2007). Explicit exertion of power, and open acts of hostility, are more
likely to fuel a motive for collective action and protest (e.g., Becker & Wright 2011). HS is
therefore only effective if exercised infrequently (Bugental 2010), and/or when it is
balanced with benevolence. Furthermore, recent research also suggests that confrontation
of sexist behavior may have negative consequences on the evaluation of women (Becker et
al. 2011), and that men judge as less attractive women who do not endorse traditional
sexist beliefs (Montañés et al. 2013a; 2013b; see also Lau et al. 2008). Thus, confrontation
of sexism is not an easy option for women.
Another consequence of hostile sexism is the so-called stereotype threat effect.
Women perform typically worse in stereotypically masculine tasks (e.g., a math test) as their
gender membership is emphasized, even by means of subtle reminders (e.g., Spencer et al.
1999). However, similar damaging effects occur with benevolent sexism. A growing body of
experimental evidence demonstrates that benevolence is harmful for women’s feelings of
competence and even actual performances (Dardenne et al. 2007; de Lemus et al. 2012;
Moya et al. 2007; Vescio et al. 2005). Women may underperform because of their fear of
negative treatment if they reveal good performances. Agentic achievements by women are
often judged as a violation of prescriptive gender stereotypes, and can thus lead to
punishments, sabotage, and unfavorable evaluations, a phenomenon called backlash (Eagly
& Karau 2002; Prentice & Carranza 2002; Rudman 1998; Rudman & Fairchild 2004; Rudman
et al. 2012). Research on gender stereotypes has shown that the agentic descriptions of
men match closely those of the normative white and healthy adults in general, whereas
descriptions of women are embedded in group-specific, relational and communal
characteristics (see Hegarty et al. 2013; Wood & Eagly 2010). Accordingly, the ‘think
manager–think male’ phenomenon (Schein et al. 1996) shows that leaders in general are
most often endowed with masculine, agentic characteristics. Female leaders must therefore
face the conflicting demands of what it means to be a good leader and of what it means to
be a woman (see Eagly & Carli 2007; Heilman et al. 2004). Role congruity theory (Eagly &
Karau 2002), as well as the status incongruity hypothesis (Rudman et al. 2012), examine
antecedents and consequences of perceived violations of gender or status expectations. To
avoid punishment, women tend to adapt their behaviors, for example by negotiating lower
salaries for themselves than for others (Amanatullah & Morris 2010), not promoting
themselves in job-interviews (Rudman 1998), or hiding their performances (Rudman &
Fairchild 2007). These behaviors support the status quo of the gender hierarchy, and
contribute to ban women from prestigious and high-status activities (Rudman et al. 2012).
Thus, sexism does not only impact women’s actual performances. It also leads to the
downplaying, or the conscious hiding, of successful performances in traditionally masculine
domains. Moreover, it has consequences on strategies for identity improvement. Indeed, if
men pursue positive distinctiveness using agentic (i.e., status-relevant) dimensions, women,
in a parallel process, pursue positive distinctiveness using communal (status-irrelevant)
dimensions (e.g., see Caprariello et al. 2009; Fiske & Cuddy 2006; Oldmeadow & Fiske 2010;
Maccoby 1998). From the social identity perspective (Tajfel & Turner 1986), this difference
can be conceived of as a social creativity strategy whereby members of a low-status group
achieve positive distinctiveness despite their negative standing in the social structure (e.g.,
Bettencourt et al. 2001).
Finally, at a macro-level, it has been found that national averages in HS and BS are
positively related to gender inequality indexes in those nations (Glick et al. 2004). Research
shows that, especially in traditionally male domains, men consider that the work domain is
not suitable for women's qualities and competencies, whereas women accuse sexism
targeted against them (Lorenzi-Cioldi & Faniko 2009). More generally, the impact of
communal stereotypes on women's professional careers is revealed by the consistent and
substantive negative correlations between family life (as assessed, for instance, with family
size) and professional life. The corresponding correlations typically reach outstanding
positive levels among men (cf. Lorenzi-Cioldi 2002).
We conclude this article by emphasizing an important emerging sex difference in the
expression of gender stereotypes and sexism. As we mentioned, until the 70s men and
women tended to acknowledge a social male advantage. Men were judged as more agentic
(competent, independent, objective) and women as more communal (arm, expressive,
interpersonal sensitive) (see Williams & Best 1982). Although sexism remains a complex
societal phenomenon nowadays with both sexes expressing sexism against women,
women's attitudes clearly evolved more rapidly than men's. Whereas men’s attitudes have
remained largely traditional, women’s attitudes are moving towards more liberal views
(e.g., Deal & Stevenson 1998).
See also: Essentialism; Feminist research; Gender differences in personality and social
behavior; Gender and academic motivation; Gender studies; Implicit association test;
Prejudice and discrimination; Stereotypes, social psychology; Stigma, social psychology of.
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Scientific and teaching :
Measure of sexism :
Sexism in the workplace:
Sexism in everyday life – reports:
United Nations – UNESCO :
European Union :
Council of Europe :