Benevolent Sexism

Management Insights

As we focus increasingly on sustainability and diversity, we often come across issues that have very different outcomes to those expected. Outlined in this blog is an example of what Management Today has headlined “benevolent sexism”, and how it can hinder women’s career development and increase the possibility of a backlash against female leaders.

It is only “natural” to communicate differently with men and women. After all, traditionally men are famously from Mars whilst women are from Venus. Although we are more similar than we are different, it seems humans instinctively trend towards seeing women as more altruistic than men, who are typically seen as more selfish.

An article by the University of East Anglia states the following:

“In both the public and private sectors, leaders often make decisions that affect the wellbeing of others. For example, political leaders make policy choices that affect the welfare of their constituents. In many situations, they face a choice between maximising their own payoffs and maximising the payoffs of others. In these types of environments, the traditional view on gender roles posits that women are more likely than men to act in an altruistic way.” 

This is now backed up by research from the University of East Anglia and the Universities of Melbourne and Monash in Australia. This research found that the observed gender biases in such assessments are exhibited by men, and to some extent, evaluators who act in a more prosocial manner, that is, in a way that benefits others. The researchers asked how leaders’ decisions are evaluated and whether evaluators are biased in their attribution of outcomes between female and male leaders in such environments.

“Due to society’s growing demand for social responsibility, those in leadership roles are under more scrutiny than ever before,” said Dr Boon Han Koh, of UEA’s School of Economics and Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science. “As a result, leaders across the board are expected to be aware of their impact on social welfare and engage in more prosocial activities.

“The actions of leaders are motivated by prosociality (taking responsivity for others), which in turn have consequences on the welfare of group that they are leading. It is therefore important to understand whether male and female leaders are assessed differently, since the evaluations are likely to affect individuals’ decision-making processes.

“We find that positive outcomes of male and female leaders are not treated differently, suggesting that men and women are deemed to be equally altruistic after being seen to achieve positive results.

“However, while the low outcomes of male leaders are blamed more on their selfish decisions, those of female leaders are attributed more to bad luck. Hence, in the case of failure, men are assigned more blame than women and perceived as being selfish.”

“The actions taken by the leaders could not be observed by the other group members, the evaluators, meaning they were judged solely on the outcomes they delivered. However, their gender was revealed to the rest of their group. The team found biases in the attribution of outcomes that seemed to favour women, but warn this might not be a good thing. “

“One interpretation of our results is that male evaluators may see the need to treat female leaders more favourably, therefore giving them a greater benefit of the doubt in the face of failure,” said Dr Nisvan Erkal from the University of Melbourne.

“A possible explanation for this is benevolent sexism, which tends to lead to behaviours toward women that are often characterised as prosocial. It is driven by the stereotype that women need to be protected.”

So, it seems men act differently to women when they fail.  This could be because they are acting protectively, do not wish to be accused of sexism or feel repressed in their approach to dealing with women and fear a non-male reaction.  What is clear is that women do not give other women the same benefit of the doubt, which explains why a number of women I know do not understand why some of their female colleagues ‘get away’ with poor performance.

This is a double whammy for the protected females. This ‘benevolent sexism’ may appear less damaging than ‘hostile sexism’, but, warn the study’s authors, it can still lead to adverse outcomes for women.

“For example, gender biases in evaluations that favour women may hinder the development of their careers and increase the possibility of backlash against female leaders in the long run”

The protected females are not getting accurate feedback on performance, which does not inform them on the improvements they can make; which, in the long term, will hinder their careers and reduce their (and the organisation’s) effectiveness.

Professor Lata Gangadharan, from the department of economics at Monash, warns that such gender biases “may also lead to distortions in the incentives offered to all decision-makers in positions of power, male and female, and harm the future actions taken by them”.

By Charles Whelan on 07/07/2023