By Rana Bou Saleh | Staff Writer

How many times have we, as women, come across a moment where an action appears to be sexist, but not in the simple and direct way that we are used to? How many times have we questioned whether to let our male counterpart pay the entire bill himself, split the bill, or pay it all ourselves? How many times did we question whether there is more to men holding the door for women and letting them pass first, with the “ladies first” concept attached to it? We find ourselves in such situations quite frequently, and even if we don’t think about them in depth, it’s time to take a closer look. 

Types of Sexism

Sexism is the discrimination against an individual based on their sex. The Oxford dictionary defines sexism as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex”. Why does it typically target women? The answer is simple: power dynamics favor men, especially through patriarchal systems that involve this kind of favoritism and domination over different levels. These levels explain the existence of different types of sexism. 

The most common or known type of sexism is the hostile sexism that has started to become more obvious and shunned in our society. Misogyny, or hatred of women is a kind of hostile sexism. Basically, hostile sexism is any act or thought of sexism that demonizes women and portrays them as manipulative beings who use their “seductive skills” to control men, and thus need to be controlled and “put in place”. 

The more undercover and socially acceptable form of sexism is benevolent sexism. This form of sexism doesn’t appear hateful or mean towards women. It is the type of sexism that infantilizes the woman and considers her innocent, pure, caring, nurturing, fragile and beautiful. Some of the adjectives this form of sexism imposes on women are not inherently negative and may even seem nice, but there is a downside to confining all women’s identities to particular qualities of certain people – be it women, men, or anything in between or outside of this limited binary. In fact, it still categorizes a group of people to be weaker and more vulnerable, which is problematic on its own, considering the prevalence of gender stereotypes and biases which, more often than not, tend to harm women.

Incidents of Benevolent Sexism

So what kind of actions or thoughts are considered benevolent sexism?

There are many instances of benevolent sexism that we are exposed to yet don’t think twice about. The most popular ones are actions that portray the dominance of men in a “nice” way-  actions we tend to consider as characteristics of a “gentleman”. For example, consider a man opening the door for a woman. This action looks like a gesture of respect and has been normalized as part of this facade. It has, however, an underlying face of benevolent sexism that portrays women as too fragile and weak to open their own door. 

Consider yet another example that falls into the same kind of normalized actions of benevolent sexism: when a man does not let a woman pay for her own food – a common occurrence on dates. This normalization is not solely that of men; women also perceive a man who does not pay the entire bill as being cheap and less of a man. As a result, this kind of sexism has been engraved in the minds of women as well. While some justify these actions by the gender pay gap, through which men get paid more than women and thus can afford to pay for both, it is more than a matter of money. In refusing to let women pay, men are subtly restating their dominance over women. They strip women of their agency over their lives and personal decisions – which is why it is considered an act of sexism. 

Other instances that fall under benevolent sexism are basing a woman’s value on her role as mother, wife or girlfriend, praising the appearance of women more than other attributes, believing that women shouldn’t do certain things on their own like driving or managing money, and the list goes on. 

What do we do about it

The first step towards solving any problem is acknowledging its existence. So as a starting point, we need to observe the actions and thoughts that we and other people around us portray and question their roots and impact. Once we start acknowledging the existence of benevolent sexism, there is a great chance that we will start to feel its impact and burdensome weight on our lives. It is crucial to identify the subtle ways by which benevolent sexism plagues our society and refrain from turning a blind eye when it comes to this issue. We also need to call out such acts. These acts will not stop if we do not actively try to stop them. It is equally as important to spread awareness in order for people to know about the roots and impact of these thoughts and actions.