If you're the type of guy who instinctively opens a door for a woman or pulls out her chair at the table, are you being polite or patronizing? That's the type of question psychologists Janet Swim of Penn State and Julia Becker of Philipps University Marburg in Germany asked of 120 college students (male and female) in the United States and Germany about sexism--both blatant and "benevolent."
Women tend to be more attuned to and offended by both types of sexism, reports Huffington Post about the study. But that doesn't mean men are incorrigible: "When asked to empathize with the female targets of specific sexist incidents, male participants were less likely to sanction blatant sexism."
Men, however, didn't see "benevolent" sexism as an offense, reports HuffPo: "Men did not consider statements including 'a good woman should be put on a pedestal' or 'in a disaster, women should be saved before men' to be sexist."
Personally, I'd appreciate being pushed into a cozy dinghy if I were on the Titanic. That said, I also understand that the workplace is different from traveling on the high seas.
Truth is, there is harmful, subtle sexism at the workplace--like the notion that a working mother probably wouldn't want a big assignment that requires a lot of travel, or that a woman might not be "commanding" enough to conduct a tough negotiation. Or this: That some women don't need a big bonus or raise because they have husbands who make good money.
I've been there--and so have many women I know.
So does opening a door for a woman, helping her carry those redwells up the stairs, or complimenting her about her fetching new suit constitute a put-down? Do those niceties reinforce feminine stereotypes?
In Forbes, Jenna Goudreau warns that gallantry could foster the notion "that women are less than [able] or need special favors in order to succeed." She continues:
Men and women might subconsciously receive that message and carry it with them to their schoolyards, workplaces, and marriages. If your girlfriend is too “delicate” to change a tire, is a female manager too “weak” to run your board? And if you believe that he should pay for dinner, are you more willing to accept a lower salary?
To me, there's a distinction between old-fashioned courtesy and sexism. I'm hardly a traditionalist (some readers think I'm a rabid feminist), but I often find it's the "old-school" male bosses who are actually more supportive of women's careers. They seem to listen better and take women more seriously. Maybe that's because they're just more respectful generally--a commodity that's frequently missing in the pressure cooker of a law firm.
Readers, what's your experience? Do you find chivalry in the workplace inappropriate? And men, do you ever feel your politeness is misunderstood by your women colleagues?
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.
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