A new poll by the Pew Research Center suggests that more than half of men think sexism is a thing of the past; in contrast, only about one-third of women agree. One reason for the disagreement may stem from misunderstandings about the kinds of behavior that constitute sexism. Indeed, an important body of research instigated by Susan Fiske of Princeton and Peter Glick of Lawrence University demonstrates that prejudice toward women can take obvious and not-so-obvious forms. Both forms are destructive. But our research shows that this latter benevolent form of sexism is exceptionally damaging, particularly in the workplace. It primarily manifests itself in two ways.
First, much like the way anxious new parents protect their children by limiting their exposure to risk, managers often see women as in need of such protection, so they limit their exposure to risky or challenging work. For example, surveys of men and women in the oil and gas and health care industries show that the women received fewer challenging developmental work opportunities than the men. Both men and women, however, reported comparable levels of interest in engaging in these assignments. Follow-up experiments confirmed that managers who engage in benevolent sexism “protected” women from challenging assignments and instead gave the work to men. While this may have seemed “nice” on the surface, these protective behaviors actually made it more difficult for women to advance.
Second, women are less likely to get constructive criticism, and more likely to receive unsolicited offers for help. But although well-intentioned, such attempts to protect or coddle women can undermine their self-confidence. In the survey above, supervisors gave female managers less negative feedback than their male counterparts; constructive criticism has been found to be essential for increased performance and learning. In another experiment, fake teammates told some undergraduate participants who were working on a task, “Let me help you with this. I know this kind of thing can be hard for some girls/guys.” Both male and female participants who were treated in this benevolent manner felt worse about their own ability — they had lower self-efficacy — than participants who were not helped. A separate survey of working adults reported in the same paper confirmed these findings. This type of patronizing yet seemingly positive behavior undermines self-efficacy: It is assumptive (rather than requested), it implies that its recipient is dependent on (rather than autonomous from) the provider of support, and it is asserted didactically (rather than negotiated through discussion). Importantly, women are more likely to be the recipients of this type of unwanted help, and therefore are more likely to suffer its negative consequences.
Yet many of these problems have clear solutions. Attempts to support women at work may be most effective when they occur in response to a request, when they enable rather than restrict autonomy, and when they are negotiated through discussion. For example, rather than assuming that a woman would pass on an assignment involving travel, just ask her. Instead of telling a woman she should take an extended maternity leave, inquire as to how long she would like to take. When attempting to support female employees, managers should think carefully about how and why they are motivated to do so, whether they would support a male employee in the same manner, and what implicit message their behavior is sending to the woman.
Does this mean chivalry is dead? No. All people like to be treated with courtesy and respect. But it does mean that some behaviors — those that are patronizing, overly protective, and unsolicited — can be harmful. Women can get by with a little less of this kind of help from their colleagues.
Dr. Kristen Jones is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on identifying and remediating subtle bias that unfairly disadvantages diverse employees at work, particularly women and mothers.
Dr. Eden King is an Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and an Associate Editor of the Journal of Management and the Journal of Business and Psychology. She has published over 100 scholarly works related to discrimination, including the book, How Women Can Make it Work: The Science of Success.
IMAGE CREDITS: http://theconversation.com/