Wonderful but weak – benevolent sexism begins in early childhood, research finds

by Freya Lucas

May 21, 2020

Young children who hold seemingly positive or ‘benevolent’ views about women – such as women should be warm, charming and worthy of being on a pedestal – are also likely to hold negative or hostile ones – such as women are less intelligent than men – a team of psychology researchers has found

 

The researchers also show differences between boys and girls in how these views change over time: “hostile” sexist perceptions decline for both boys and girls as they get older, but “benevolent” sexist ones diminish only for girls.

 

Associate Professor Andrei Cimpian, one of the authors, said “It might seem cute when a boy acts in chivalrous ways toward girls, or when a girl pretends to be a princess who’s waiting for a prince to rescue her, and many times, this is just play, with no deeper meaning. But other times, these behaviors – even though they may seem inoffensive – might signal that children view women in a negative light, as weak, incompetent, and unable to survive or thrive without a man’s help.” 

 

The study, which appears in the journal Sex Roles, reveals how these attitudes evolve with age for boys and girls, albeit unevenly, added first author Matthew Hammond, a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington.

 

While many understand the term “sexism” to refer to overtly negative attitudes toward women, the authors said, another aspect of sexism that is often overlooked is what previous researchers have dubbed “benevolent sexism” which consists of attitudes that may appear positive, but that are still undermining of and patronising toward women.

Previous studies have shown that adults who hold sexist views that are hostile also possess ones that are benevolent. But less clear is whether or not children also simultaneously hold these perceptions – and whether or not these views change through childhood.

To understand more about the views of children, the researchers looked at the attitudes of more than 200 children, aged between five and eleven years in both New York and Illinois. 

 

The children were asked if a series of statements were right or wrong. The statements included both benevolent views (such as “men need to protect women from danger”) and hostile views (such as “women get more upset than men about small things”) 

 

In analysing children’s agreement and disagreement with these statements, the researchers found that children gave statistically distinct patterns of responses to the statements expressing hostile and benevolent views about women. 

 

Importantly, however, they also found an association between these types of views, meaning that if a child agreed with a hostile statement, then he or she was also likely to agree with a benevolent one.

 

“This is something we did not know before about young children’s gender attitudes,” Associate Professor Cimpian said.

“Boys may be less likely to recognise that their benevolent attitudes toward women are, in fact, patronising,” he suggested. 

“For instance, they may hold on to the belief that men ought to protect women because this view is in line with social norms and may be reinforced throughout their upbringing.”

 

The study’s authors see current pandemic circumstances as a chance to address concerns the study’s findings raise.

 

“Parents and children are spending a lot of time together these days, so there are plenty of opportunities for conversation,” Mr Hammond noted. “It could be worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing what they think men and women should be.”

 

To read the research in full, please see here

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