There is an old adage that says we all smile in the same language. Although that’s a warm and fuzzy thought, a recent study from Northeastern University makes me hope that the intentions and attitudes behind toothy grins cannot be so easily generalized. My colleague Maya has already written about how smiling is freighted with gender implications. The Northeastern study evaluated interactions between twenty-seven pairs of American undergraduate men and women, with a goal of investigating how men’s word choice, attitudes, and smiles betray “the type of sexism they sometimes subtly show when interacting with women they have just met.” Although men who smiled more were rated by women as warmer and easier to approach, they also displayed benevolent sexism.
For those new to the idea, “benevolent sexism” dates back to 1996, when Peter Glick and Susan Fiske coined the term. They defined it as “a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure).” In the context of the Northeastern study, men who smiled tended to agree with statements such as “[a] good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.” Smilers were also more likely to see women as “pure and warm yet helpless and incompetent beings who require cherished protection from men.” Of course, not all men who smile are misogynists and construing the concept of benevolent sexism too broadly risks creating a damned if you do, damned if you don’t double bind for men. That being said, where the attitudes animating kindness are those identified by Glick and Fiske, the harm is very real.
Because it’s masked by smiles, benevolent sexism might be harder to spot than classic hostility toward women. However, chivalrous chauvinism is no less dangerous to a woman’s success, particularly in the workplace. Imagine the career trajectory of a woman with a boss who fit the above definition of a benevolent sexist. He helps her, he even confides in her, and, of course, he smiles at her. Yet these superficial kindnesses stem not from a place of mutual respect, but from her perceived need for male support. It seems unlikely that a boss who behaves this way but actually sees women as “helpless” and “incompetent” would ever choose a woman over a man when it comes time for promotions. So which do you think the woman would prefer, the charitable niceties or a raise?
For a real life example, take the Ellen Pao trial that my colleague Yonina wrote about last week. Among other forms of sexual harassment and discrimination, Pao has testified about how a male senior partner treated lower-level employees to whom he offered his “sponsorship.” The partner helped men with their investments, Pao said, but would merely “give [her] advice from time to time” without promoting her career. In this way, the Pao trial shows how, legally speaking, benevolent sexism in the workplace is especially difficult to root out and remedy. It seems far easier for judges and juries to get behind a woman who has faced blatant sexual harassment than to support a woman whose boss has been killing her career with kindness.
Unfortunately, the onus is on women to be attentive to sexist stereotypes masquerading as warmth and support. While this type of sexism might make the office a more amicable place, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. So look out, ladies, and beware the man who smiles too much.