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Benevolent Sexism Keeps Women from Success in Career and Home

November 16, 2018

Increasingly women are encouraged to pursue STEM careers, but as a society, we still expect these women to buy the groceries, raise the children and do the laundry. Why does it have to be so hard for women to be happy and successful in both their career and family life?

“Both men and women should enjoy career and relationship success,” states Nickola C. Overall, Ph.D., co-author of How Intimate Relationships Contribute to Gender Inequality: Sexist Attitudes Encourage Women to Trade Off Career Success for Relationship Security, published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

But a persistent type of sexism—known as benevolent sexism—works to inhibit women from pursuing career and relationship intimacy.

Overall explains that benevolent sexism works in subtle, almost invisible ways, forcing women to make choices between the two domains: career and home life.  Benevolent sexism does not impact men the same way; instead, it facilitates success for men in both domains.

Benevolent sexism stipulates a romantic view of intimate relationships where women provide the love and support that “completes” men and men in turn cherish, protect and provide for women.  Benevolent sexism implies that men must cherish and protect women because they are less capable and need help from men.

“By valuing different qualities in men and women, benevolent sexism prescribes specific gender roles that promote men’s social power and confine women’s power to the relationship domain,” according to the article, by Overall and co-author Matthew D. Hammond.

Women who endorse benevolent sexism are encouraged to focus on their special place in relationships but often face a spiraling effect: as they lose the workplace domain, they feel increased pressure to have a successful family life.

Rejecting benevolent sexism also comes with costs. Women who choose career over relationships not only deprive themselves of the health and well-being that comes through intimacy, but they can age out of the childbearing years before they feel secure enough in their careers to pursue family goals.

Overall and Hammond recommend policies that focus on strategies that will enable women to pursue both family and career equally.

A “more egalitarian family structure” would have workplace leave benefits for new fathers and new mothers, “rebalancing the burden of childcare,” they write.

The authors also suggest that education of both women and men is key to help women identify with their careers and encourage their male partners to support women’s career aspirations.

Educational strategies also can change the mindset of the upcoming generations by encouraging both boys and girls to view gender roles equally.

“Facilitating gender equality is not just about trying to reduce discrimination in the workplace,” Overall explains.  “We’re recognizing that both domains (career and family) are important, and we should facilitate both domains for women, not just men.”


Drawn from “How Intimate Relationships Contribute to Gender Inequality: Sexist Attitudes Encourage Women to Trade Off Career Success for Relationship Security” by Nickola C. Overall and Matthew D. Hammond.

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