You know that
nauseating adorable thing that happens when couples start to mirror each other’s mannerisms? Facial expressions? Midwestern accents? Well, according to a new study, these superficial quirks aren’t the only qualities that can be contagious: A man’s perceived sexism may rub off on his female partner, too.
In the study, social psychologists at the University of Illinois and the University of Auckland in New Zealand set out to learn more about why some women are sexist against their own gender. The authors wondered:
Why do women endorse attitudes which serve to reinforce existing gender inequality, undermine personal competence and achievement, and reduce resistance to societal systems which disadvantage women?
Basically, what’s up with women who say they’re against feminism?
While a woman’s beliefs about her gender can originate from a complex cocktail of childhood experiences, the culture in which she’s raised, and a host of other factors, the authors of the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, were able to identify one influence that was remarkably reliable:
The researchers found that women often endorse sexist beliefs about their own gender when they date men whom they perceive to be sexist.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers conducted four separate studies using a total of more than 1,000 participants in longterm relationships from across North America and New Zealand.
The first two studies enlisted heterosexual couples–one spanned nine months and the other one year, which allowed the researchers to track how beliefs shifted over time. These couples had been together for an average of 2.6 years, and the participants ranged from 17 to 48 years old. The final two studies involved individuals who were in committed relationships lasting anywhere from six months to 42 years. These participants ranged in age from 19 to 70 years old.
Each of the four studies asked participants questions to measure their level of sexism, how they perceived their partner’s level of sexism, and what type of sexism they exhibited—hostile or benevolent.
This is an important distinction. “Hostile sexism” is defined by endorsing derogatory beliefs about women and the idea that “women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” “Benevolent sexism” is less obvious and seemingly more chivalrous, supporting the idea that “women should be cherished and protected by men.”
While benevolent sexism might not sound so bad, well, it is, says Matthew Hammond, the lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the University of Illinois. Benevolent sexism is demeaning toward women, since it classifies them as a weaker sex—and can negatively impact women’s advancement in society. “Benevolent ideas that sound positive and caring can be most detrimental to gender equality,” says Hammond.
The authors elaborate on these consequences in the study:
Women’s acceptance of benevolent sexism is linked with felt incompetence, a lack of desire for independent success, harsher attitudes toward victims of acquaintance rape and decreased support for societal policies promoting women’s workplace advancement.
In previous research, for example, Hammond found that when male partners exhibited benevolent sexism while helping female partners achieve a goal—in fitness, work, or school—the women felt less competent in their own abilities and less able to achieve their goal.
“Benevolent sexism is appealing because of the subjectively positive picture it paints for how traditional relationships ‘should be,’ Hammond says, “but these beliefs that seem romantic or chivalrous actually legitimize discrimination toward women who do not want to have a traditional relationship role.”
It’s the subtlety of benevolent sexism that allows it to be so damaging—which is why the authors were particularly interested in studying women who exhibit benevolent sexist attitudes. While a woman might run in the opposite direction from a man who exhibits hostile sexism, benevolent sexism is more nuanced, and as a result, more likely to seep its way into relationships.
In the first study, the authors found that women who perceived their partners to be benevolently sexist not only endorsed those sexist beliefs, but their endorsement of them increased over the nine months that the study took place.
In the second study, the researchers found that women who perceived their male partners to endorse benevolent sexism supported sexism themselves to a greater degree than women who didn’t perceive their partners to be sexist. Not only that, women who did not perceive their partners to be sexist tended to reject benevolent sexism over time.
In this study, the authors also controlled for the endorsement of sexism in society at large and found that it was indeed the relationship that influenced women’s beliefs. They concluded, “These analyses demonstrate that intimate relationships play a distinct and unique role in shaping women’s benevolent sexism.”
(Notably, women’s beliefs had no impact on their male partners. “Women’s, but not men’s, perceptions of their partner’s sexism was significantly associated with changes in their own benevolent sexism across time,” the authors write.)
This result was observed across all four studies—and yet, the researchers wanted to prove causation, not just correlation. They wanted to show that it was these women’s relationships that were influencing them.
And so, in the final two studies, the authors ran a little experiment. After measuring how participants viewed both their own and their partners’ sexism, the authors handed each participant a fictitious article that they claimed had been published in Psychology Today, which discussed sexism in relationships. One article, given to half the group, stated that people tend to underestimate their partner’s sexism. The other article, given to the other half, stated that people tend to overestimate their partner’s sexism.
As predicted, the researchers found that, on average, the women who were led to believe that their partners might be more sexist than they perceived them to be suddenly expressed greater sexist beliefs themselves. That’s right—on average, participants elevated their level of sexism based on what they assumed was their partner’s level of sexism.
“In contrast, and as expected, men’s endorsement of benevolent sexism did not differ between the ‘underestimate’ condition and ‘overestimate’ condition,” write the authors.
You may be wondering—couldn’t it be that women who already hold sexist beliefs simply seek out men with those same beliefs?
When I posed this question to Hammond, he told me, “This does occur to some extent—people tend to pick partners who share the same kinds of beliefs as them, so this is an important control.” But he also explained that, in the first two studies, he and his team controlled for participants and their partners’ beliefs at the “start,” allowing them to track how their beliefs changed over time and were able to measure “people’s ongoing perceptions in their relationship, no matter where they started.”
So why is this happening? The authors theorize that some women want to buy into benevolent sexism because it offers them a feeling of security and reverence in the relationship. Yet, as the authors explain, the so-called benefits are predicated on the idea that women must take on a meek, more subordinate role in the relationship.
“At the personal level, benevolent sexism promotes women’s investment in men’s societal power by incentivizing the adoption of supportive relationship roles and promoting their interpersonal … qualities,” write the authors.
When viewed this way, the relationship is an exchange, in which the woman exists solely to support the man, rather than acting as her own person—and in turn, he promises to provide for her.
The real damage comes when these individual relationships play out on a larger stage. As Hammond points out in the study, “Women’s intimate involvement with men who are perceived to endorse benevolent sexism contributes to the maintenance of sexist attitudes and, in turn, societal-level gender inequalities.”
The takeaway? Let’s all stop dating sexist guys, and together, we can make the world a better place.