9 Red Flags That Benevolent Sexism Is at Play in Your Office

Woman on phone


AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
June 14, 2024 at 11:40AM UTC
Only about a third of women (33 percent) and men (36 percent) say both genders are about equally represented in their workplace. That leaves two-thirds of both men and women who agree that sexism is alive in their workspaces. A survey found that women employed in primarily male work environments are more likely to say that it's harder for them to get ahead, and they are less likely to say that women are treated fairly in personal matters. Plus, they report experiencing gender discrimination at significantly higher rates — about half of women say their workplace is mostly male (49 percent) say sexual harassment is a problem where they work, and some 37 percent of women report that they have been treated as if they were not competent because of their gender.
But sexism isn't always so overt. According to Forbes, while hostile and obvious sexism is rarely tolerated, sexist mentalities are still "alive and well in the form of benevolent sexism," and "what makes it so insidious is that it is disguised by what appears on the surface to be a simple positive remark or situation."

So what does benevolent sexism look like?

Benevolent sexism vs ambivalent sexism

Benevolent sexism is different from ambivalent sexism, and the difference is important.
"Benevolent sexism is a form of paternalistic prejudice (treating a lower status group as a father might treat a child) directed toward women," according to Psychology. "Prejudice is often thought of as a dislike or antipathy toward a group. Benevolent sexism, however, is an affectionate but patronizing attitude that treats women as needing men’s help, protection, and provision (i.e., as being more like children than adults). Benevolently sexist attitudes suggest that women are purer and nicer than men, but also mentally weaker and less capable. Behaviors that illustrate benevolent sexism include overhelping women (implying they cannot do something themselves), using diminutive names (e.g., 'sweetie') toward female strangers, or 'talking down' to women (e.g., implying they cannot understand something technical). Although benevolent sexism might seem trivial, patronizing behaviors can be damaging."
Meanwhile, ambivalent sexism is more obvious, and it actually is a combination of benevolent sexism with more hostile prejudices toward women.
"Ambivalent sexism is an ideology composed of both a 'hostile' and 'benevolent' prejudice toward women," according to Understanding Prejudice. "Hostile sexism is an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction. Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men's protection."

Red flags of benevolent sexism

Here are 10 red flags that benevolent sexism is being played out in your own workplace.

1. Your company asks you to plan events.

Maybe you really enjoy planning events because you're a doer, but planning events isn't a skill that organizations generally value, and it likely won't turn up on your performance review of your job — because it's not part of you job, Forbes explained. It can be stressful and take tons of effort and use up your valuable time, which detracts from your job and can lead to poor productivity and lower qualities of work. Plus, the request may be grounded in the stereotype that women are better planners and organizers than leaders — this an issue that has become known as the "mother-manager syndrome." Feminist Fight Club author Jessica Bennett has called the syndrome the “perfect example of both external sexism and internalized sexism.” She told CNN, “We think we need to be ‘helpful’ and ‘nurturing’ and take on these roles that are traditionally female.”

2. Your work has been delegated when you return from maternity leave.

It may seem like your company was trying to help you if they reassign some of your work, especially your high-profile clients, to someone else under the assumption that you'll want to take it easy and ease back into your job. But if you'd communicated to your manager and human resources department that you'd planned on resuming your job after leave, then this could mean that they didn't quite trust that, according to Forbes. The reassignment of your important tasks decreases your opportunities for advancement and promotions. You may have been hit with the "new mother" penalty — women’s salaries, on average, decrease four percent for each child they have, one study says.

3. Your performance review touts your personality.

While it's nice to be praised for your personality, if your male boss focuses on how "likable" you are, it may be subtle sexism, according to Forbes. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review finds that women are 1.4 times more like to receive subjective critical feedback (and less constructive critical feedback), and women’s performances are more likely attributed to characteristics rather than skills and abilities. In 2014, linguist Kieran Snyder also collected 248 performance reviews and found that women were significantly more likely to receive critical feedback (87.9 percent, compared to 58.9 percent for men) and more likely to receive feedback based on their personality traits. 
While women were perceived as abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational, men were considered confident and assertive. This subtle but significant difference demonstrates how our gendered language consistently tells men how to win and women how not to fail, and confines women to a double bind through which they’re deemed too nice and thus incompetent or otherwise too bossy or any of the other aforementioned adjectives. That's beside the fact that performance reviews offer little explanation as to how women could improve. In 2016, research from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research’s found that feedback to men is full of granular detail and actionable advice (and recognized men’s independence), and feedback to women is uselessly vague but touts women’s teamwork and collaboration skills, which encourages men and women to follow different paths and positions male employees as more-likely leaders.

4. Difficult clients and tough negotiations are given to men.

If all or most of difficult clients have been assigned to men, that may mean that your company doesn't think women can handle those tough negotiations, according to Forbes. And this sets women back, since dealing with difficult clients is a huge learning experience that can propel one's career forward. Without difficult clients, it's harder for women to develop their negotiation skills and move up. The bias is that women will cave in too early because they'll let their emotions get in the way. 

5. Your boss or colleague corrects you, even politely, in email chains.

If there's something with which your boss or colleagues has an issue and they take it up with you via email with the entire team CC'd, it's both unprofessional and disrespectful. What he or she should do is call you into a meeting or send you a separate email to address the issue. "If [someone is] responding to an email sent out to a group, [they should] be sure [they] are only hitting 'reply all' if [their] reply is truly necessary for everyone to receive," Rosemary Haefner, chief human-resources officer for CareerBuilder, told Business Insider.

6. Your colleagues constantly tout your sense of style.

While it may be flattering to be complimented on your clothes and outfits that you carefully curate each morning, you don't want to become known for being the best dressed in the office, and only the best dressed. Forbes put it simply: "Who doesn’t like a compliment? It makes you feel good; boosts your self-esteem. In fact, a well-timed compliment can make your day when you’re feeling blue. What’s the harm? It may not seem harmful at all, until you realize that you only receive superficial comments about your appearance, never about your work. And though you may welcome the attention, over time you become frustrated and discouraged because no one takes you seriously."

7. Your colleagues expect you to bring the coffee and snacks to the company meetings.

Bringing coffee and food to company meetings is yet another task women are asked to do more than men, and it has to do with the mother-manager syndrome, as well. While the aforementioned “motherly” tasks seem both subtle and simple, the problem lies in the societal assumption that women will take care of things at the office when no one else will. We’ve accepted the “mother-manager syndrome” as the norm when, in fact, women have responsibilities that actually pertain to their positions to which they really should be prioritizing. And, regardless, women still earn less than men, and they’re expected to take on work that is not delineated in their job descriptions — and sometimes they're even spending their own money on treating the office.

8. Your boss takes over difficult conversations.

Similar to your boss assigning difficult clients to men, when your boss takes over difficult conversations, they may be suggesting that they don't think you're capable of handling it. This may stem from the unconscious bias that women's emotions take over.

9. Your colleagues are always asking about your after-work plans.

If your colleagues are always asking you, "Why are you so dressed up today?" or "Where are you going after work?" implying that you may have a date or even another job interview, it may be subtle sexism. Of course, it depends on who is asking and it may be innocent friendly chit chat. But it becomes an issue when coworkers are assuming you'll leave work early or will not prioritize your job because you've got a life, too. It hurts your work-life balance and, frankly, what you do after work is no one's business (unless it's hurting your company in some way).

More About Sexism in the Workplace

For more on sexism, check out these links below.
If you're looking for effective tools for combatting sexism in your office, this is a good read for you. Learn how to deal with it and rise above it.
This post explains everything you need to know about sexism and how it plays out in the office and beyond.
Need a little help overcoming everyday sexism? You're not alone, which is why we've come up with three coping mechanisms here.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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