Women tend to be more attracted to men who view females as pure and nurturing but also weak and needing extra care – an attitude that has been named benevolent sexism. That’s the conclusion of a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“We became interested in this topic, because we realized a paradox in the literature on benevolent sexism,” explained study author Pelin Gul of Iowa State University.
“Previous studies have found that men’s benevolent sexism has many detrimental consequences on women (such as undermining their competence, restricting their freedom, confining them to the kitchen), yet research had also shown that women prefer benevolent sexist men and even find these men more attractive than non-benevolent sexist men.”
“We realised that theoretical perspectives on mate preferences, especially parental investment theory, could solve this puzzle,” Gul said. “It could be that women’s attraction to benevolent sexist men is because they perceive these men as willing to invest, which could even outweigh the downsides of benevolent sexism. This explanation was entirely absent in the literature, and so that is what we wanted to add to this literature.”
Across five studies, with 782 female participants, the researchers found that women perceived a male romantic partner who held benevolent sexist attitudes as more willing to protect, provide, and commit for them, which in turn made him more attractive. Feminist women were as likely as non-feminist women to prefer benevolent sexist men over more egalitarian men.
In the study, benevolent sexist men were described as believing that women should be cherished and protected by men, and should be helped before men in emergency situations. They were also described as giving their coat to a woman in the cold and opening doors for her.
Non-benevolent sexist men, on the other hand, were described as holding more egalitarian views. They didn’t beleive that a woman should be set on pedestal by her man, nor did they offer women coats or hold open doors.
“Women are attracted to men with benevolent sexist attitudes and behaviors because benevolent sexism signals that a potential mate is willing to invest (i.e., protect, provide, and commit), which is an important mate preference for women,” Gul told PsyPost.
“Because of this, even though benevolence can be undermining to women at times, they generally still prefer men who show they are benevolent. This may apply to any women, regardless of their level of feminism and gender egalitarian views.”
The study – like all research – includes some caveats and limitations.
“There is a lot that still needs to be addressed. For instance, do women differentiate between male behavior that is genuinely benevolent and that which is intended to patronise and undermine them?” Gul explained.
“If women can tell the difference, then how do they react? Do they have ways to defend themselves against it? Women say they prefer benevolent men, but it would be interesting to see if women who do have benevolent mates have greater relationship satisfaction.”
“There is also the question regarding men’s motives for displaying benevolent sexism,” Gul continued. “Do men display benevolent sexism in order to increase their desirability as mates? Would men be motivated to display benevolent sexism regardless of whether they are gender egalitarian or not?”
The concept of benevolent sexism comes from ambivalent sexism theory, which holds that sexism is composed of both benevolent and openly hostile attitudes.
“We haven’t coined the term ‘benevolent sexism’, previous researchers did,” Gul added. “I don’t agree with this and I don’t think we should phrase it that way. It is not our job to say what is and isn’t sexist.”
“Ordinary people’s conception of sexism is intentionally or deliberately undermining, but academics often conceive of it much more broadly as anything that has a detrimental outcome for women, even if it wasn’t intended. We think that the consequences of benevolent sexism should be separated from the intent, which is our next planned study.”
“Certainly, some men may be motivated to and deliberately intend to undermine women. But, we think that women are able to tell when a man’s intent is to undermine her versus when he uses benevolent sexism for courtship.”
The study, “Benevolent Sexism and Mate Preferences: Why Do Women Prefer Benevolent Men Despite Recognizing That They Can Be Undermining?“, was authored by Pelin Gul and Tom R. Kupfer.