« News Followup--Gibson Associate's Death, Paul Weiss Partner's Divorce, Personality Tests | Main | Swimming Pool »

Sexist or Chivalrous?

Vivia Chen

July 5, 2011

427px-Victorian_chivalry 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.

Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I hold doors regardless of what is in the trousers.

What is wrong with society lol?

In lawschool, in the late 1970s, it had been emphasized to the guys that it was sexist to, for example, offer a chair to a woman. One of our pregnant classmates came in late and we criticized for not offering her a chair. We were, of course, ignorant 20 somethings. Courtesy is good and one should use common sense. Although I have to confess that I'm taken aback when a woman holds a door for me now that I have a gray beard!

Chivalry is inappropriate, period. If I hold a door open, chances are its for a fellow guy.

Viv writes, "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."

A few years ago, I ran ground transportation for a charity event. Because of the logistics, I suggested some of the attendees, male and female, rent cars at our expense rather than take shuttle vans. I'll never forget how badly I was balled out by one of the women, who said how dare I expect a woman to rent a car.

Woman always wanting it both ways. Viv, guess what? If I'm on a sinking ship with you, no more women and children first when it comes to lifeboats - every person for him or herself.

BTW, is it not sexist for a woman to expect a guy to open the door?

My wife likes it when I open the door for her, because as a man I'm her protector. I don't see anything sexist about that, I see it as nature. Men are bigger and stronger then women, and so men are the protectors, to ignore that fact then you are ignoring science or just common sense.

"Chivalry" is an outdated notion in a world where women demand to be treated equally. You should treat everyone with the same approach, and not have one code of manners for one gender and a better one for the other. No feminist, especially, should expect special treatment because of her gender.

Candidly, I'll open a door for anyone, regardless of their respective genitalia, when they are encumbered with redwelds.

And, despite that indiscriminately-nonsexist-chivalry, I agree with you Vivia--women and children first in a disaster; and, nothing wrong with paying for a date's meal.

That said, since we're on the topic of being chivalrous, possible we should (as lawyers) spend just a moment (even if it is ever so brief) recalling the origin of that word: shevalerie, from the Old French, for knight.

And, not to hector that language-relation, it is rather apropos to your topic, and its audience.

Simply put, as the modern-remnant of knights, doesn't it behoove us all to embody that paradigm?

So, that begs the real question, is being chivalrous being sexist; or, is it simply just being a good lawyer?

Is it chivalry or is it the lost art of civility? We teach our son (and our daughter) to hold the door for others ... whether male, female, older, or younger. It goes along with "please", "thank you", "excuse me", and all the other manners that oil a civilized society. He's a young adolescent, and he has noticed that most people don't acknowledge him when he holds the door ... few look at him, fewer say "thanks". Those are manners ... actions designed to put others at ease, not elements or evidence of sexism.
Yes there is sexism, but there are also people who hide behind "sexism" to mask their own inabilities and fears. And for many, compared to their mothers and grandmothers, they live very freely with opportunities like never before.
As an associate at a large firm, I travelled for clients while still nursing after the births of my children ... it was a challenge even pre-9/11 to get those pumps (not the shoes) through airport security and figure out how to excuse myself to take care of personal business. None of the partners or other associates knew this b/c it was none of their business, and I was not going to give anyone the opportunity to make my decisions for me. Partners knew I was ambitious, dedicated, effective, and easy to get along with. I got every assignment I wanted and then some.

I must say that when approaching a door with others present (male or female)I always try to open the door and extend my arm for the other person(s) present to enter while I hold the door open. I do the same when an elevator opens. Because I am a man, should I henceforth only do this for other men but not extend this same courtesy to a woman for fear that my action will be construed as sexist? I will similarly offer assistance to someone (male of female) that is carrying a heavy load. We should all be concerned that the fear of being viewed as sexist will further erode what little common courtesies still exist in our society.

Courtesy and good manners are unrelated to sexism.

What a shame that we have degenerated into this. If I am carrying 3 redwelds up stairs, and one of our attorneys sees me and offers to help, I don't see this as sexist. I see this as considerate. It is, or at least should be, a common sense standard. It's one thing to give the plum assignments only to men, but it's quite another thing to offer to help with a load of files. And by the way, I open doors for men, too.

At NYU Law there was a certain door that was notoriously hard to open because it was so heavy.

Whenever a man and a woman approached the door at the same time, the man would always open it. Men are, of course, on average considerably bigger and stronger than women. Is it sexist to have a custom that reflects this biological fact?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe to get The Careerist via e-mail

Enter your e-mail address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

To search across all ALM blogs, go to www.Lexis.com.