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How to Challenge Benevolent Gender Biases at Work

Rupsa is a Content Writer and an entrepreneur who likes to write about marketing, business, and organizational culture.

Gender stereotyping, a term most of us are well-aware of and have experienced its impacts in one way or another. Gender-role stereotypes have been influencing people's self-perception since the very beginning of human civilization. Such stereotypes regulate individuals' behaviors, worldviews, goals, career preferences, interests, the way they experience their lives, and their relationships with others. A report published by The Muse shows that only 22% of C-suite executive positions were held by women in 2018. According to that report, women are less likely to hold high-level executive positions compared to men. Therefore, it is worth looking at the factors that are preventing them from climbing the corporate ladder. Visit TheMuse for more statistical data concerning women and the workplace.

Gender stereotyping is a very complex idea, it appears in different forms. Some of those forms are so subtle that we can’t even recognize them at once. You can experience gender-biased behaviors even from people that are caring and considerate. Gender-role stereotypes are deeply rooted in our society and they are parts of our belief system. Probably because it has existed since the very beginning of human civilization. Now the question is how to challenge such prejudiced views that feel very normal sometimes? This article will explore this question and try to propose some solutions.

Types of Gender Stereotypes at Work

We experience gender biases in different forms at our workplaces. Negative gender biases are very common and easy to recognize. Negative gender stereotypes make a person think that people with a specific gender identity should behave in a particular way or demonstrate specific character traits. Traditional gender stereotypes perceive men as strong, emotionally stable, and competitive individuals that are suitable for challenging professions. On the contrary, women are believed to be likable, warm, delicate, less competent, and not suitable for highly demanding jobs. All of us are aware of such negative gender stereotypes (hostile sexism) and systems are being developed to fight such belief systems. But what if gender biases come in the disguise of benevolence? You might encounter managers, leaders, or colleagues that treat female employees with extra kindness. They seem concerned about the wellbeing of their female colleagues, allow them to leave the office early, do not allocate challenging tasks to them, or often talk about their family responsibilities. Even though such behaviors appear very considerate, they are nothing but benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism looks at women as a weaker sex that requires protection. Along with negative gender stereotypes, benevolent stereotypes should also be tackled wisely at a personal level.

Why Do Gender-Role Stereotypes Feel So Normal Sometimes?

Division of labor has been a part of human society since the very beginning. It allowed each individual to focus on specific jobs and gain expertise. The division between men’s and -women's duties is also a result of the division of labor. Men started focusing on hunting while women at home took care of children and gathered food. Doesn't matter how convenient this system was, we must accept the fact that it did not consider individuals' choices and preferences. However, this system got so deeply rooted in our society that we are still struggling to uproot it.

Several schools of thought are there that normalize gender-role stereotypes. Structural functionalism, for example, considers gender roles as the manifestation of the Division of Labor system that stabilizes our society. However, this view overlooks the discriminatory aspect of traditional gender roles. The New Right view is another important view that upholds families as ‘natural’ systems where children live with their married parents that belong in two different sex groups. They believe that the anatomical and biological differences between men and women are the primary components of a stable family. Nevertheless, this view also ignores the fact that humans are social animals, they are not solely fueled by their biological needs and instincts. If you come across a thoughtful person demonstrating gender-biased behaviors, you may assume that this is because their beliefs are somehow influenced by any of such schools of thought that promote gender-based division of labor as a socially beneficial system and ignore individuals’ personal choices and abilities.

How Do Individuals Justify Their Gender-Biased Views?

Human beings tend to justify their actions and behaviors. The cognitive dissonance theory proposed by Leon Festinger can explain this tendency. Human beings always try to make sure that their perceptions and behaviors are consistent. The actions of a person are at least justified to themselves. They feel uncomfortable when two conflicting views, values, or beliefs start manipulating their actions. They try to get rid of this discomfort in different ways, for example sidestepping new information, rejecting conflicting views, rationalizing their current deeds, or changing their behavior. The last option is quite difficult, in most cases, people try simpler options such as avoiding uncomfortable information or increasing the appeal of the choices they made in their mind.

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Ways of Challenging Benevolent Sexism at Work

Benevolent sexism can be handled at a personal level by asking questions and challenging people’s existing views. Based on the cognitive dissonance theory it can be said that if we wish someone to change their behaviors, we should try to trigger cognitive dissonance within their mind by introducing new information. At the same time, each individual should become aware of the gender-biased views that they themselves nurture.

Provide Alternative Information

The cognitive dissonance theory suggests that when a person has to choose between two conflicting options that are equally promising, they experience cognitive dissonance and in order to get rid of this uncomfortable feeling they adopt different approaches. One of those approaches is changes in behavior. Therefore, whenever you encounter a person that demonstrates a sexist attitude in a friendly manner, just challenge their thoughts by presenting alternative information. Ask them where they get their ideas from and explain why their ideas are discriminatory in nature and how that can harm you and your career. It is quite possible that they would try to avoid the new information to maintain their mental harmony; however, it is your responsibility to challenge their thoughts to protect yourself from such friendly biases.

Turn Down Unwanted Privileges

"If you are neutral on situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor" - Desmond Tutu

If you don’t take a stand against injustice and decide to go along with it or stay neutral, then you are one of the oppressors. Benevolent sexism looks at women as delicate flowers and tries to protect them and provide them with unnecessary benefits. If you accept those favors, then you are not free of biases either. Therefore, it is imperative that you turn down all those privileges that you received just because of your gender identity. If someone believes that you are as delicate as a flower just because you are a woman or as strong as mountains just because you are a man, then you must clearly state that they are wrong.

Gender biases are deeply-rooted elements of our society and it is hard to eliminate them completely. However, we cannot stop trying. It is true that no single person can shake the core of a belief system that is being passed down generation after generation. But, collectively we can have an impact.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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