jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

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Benevolent Sexism

Yesterday I had two experiences that I posted about on my Facebook wall, as I often do when something is amusing or angering or enlightening, etc.  (I also posted a picture of the nachos I made for dinner, and you can hate me for that if you wish).

Interaction One involved a guy playing almost two games of Words with Friends with me and then resigning just before I won the second game because I wouldn’t use the app to share “pics” (*cough*).  Interaction Two was a man at the gas station expressing dismay that I was outside in a dress (and boots and a sweater, but he didn’t mention those) in 45 degree, breezy weather.  And the reactions were interesting.  Without exception, people were angry at or disgusted with Interaction One’s Creepy Guy, and most seemed to recognize that sexism was in play.  But most folks, at least initially, responded with some manner of “he was just being nice/give him the benefit of the doubt” to Interaction Two’s Concerned Guy.  As if it isn’t sexism if he means well.

I have no doubt that Concerned Guy thought he was being nice. I wasn’t angry or offended and we went on, after his rather odd opening comment, to have a very nice conversation wherein I told him Spring was only 31 days away (30 now-I’m counting down) and hadn’t it been nice and sunny that day, and when we were done pumping gas, we wished each other a good weekend.  It was all very cheery.

But benevolent sexism is still sexism.  And Concerned Guy’s benevolent sexism enables Creepy Guy’s more malevolent variety.

I experience a lot of sexism, benevolent and otherwise, at work.  I’m the only woman in an office that deals primarily with construction work.  (Before we go further, know that I adore my boss.  He just has the misfortune of being the man I spend the most time with.) Some examples:

I’m “not allowed” to replace the jug on the water cooler.  From Boss’s point of view, I’m confident he thinks he’s protecting me from…something.  I mean, yes, I spent years carrying children around, and yes, part of my job duties involves wrangling heavy pieces of concrete, among other things, but for some reason he feels that water jug might do me in. The effect of this rule is that, if I run out of water, I have to wait for a man to rescue me.  And I’m still, in his mind, being placed in a category of Less Able. (Don’t worry, I replace the jug when I need water. Sometimes he catches me and is dismayed.)

I picked up two samples (5 gallon buckets full) from a client.  The client felt it necessary to explain to me that I should be careful not to brake too hard, or the buckets in the bed of my pickup truck would fly forward.  I’m not sure if the assumption on his part was that it was the first time I’d ever driven a pickup with a load in back, or if my female hormones might make me slam on the brakes or forget basic physics, or what.  I checked, and none of the men I work with had ever received this lecture from any client.  I was perceived as Less Able by this client, who knew virtually nothing about me except my gender.

Someone needed to make an emergency trip to deliver equipment.  I had free time; Boss did not.  But Boss still made the trip because “the truck is really dirty.”  I’m sure he thought he was protecting me.  I’m not sure why he thought I needed protection from dirt.  I mean, I keep a change of clothes with my hardhat and steel toed boots for occasions such as this.  Also, I’m washable. It’s interesting to note here that the act of “protecting” me is what placed me in the category of Less Able—he knew I could perform the task, but I wasn’t allowed to for my own good (or what he saw as my own good).


Someone really needs to invent a more flattering safety vest.

I sometimes walk to a particular restaurant for lunch.  To get there, I walk through a seldom-used park, over a set of railroad tracks, and around a few office buildings. One day I returned and reported that a man in the park had behaved in a manner that set off all my alarm bells (following me slowly in his truck, etc.).  Boss’s reaction was to ask why I hadn’t phoned him, and what had my mother taught me.  I told him my mama taught me how to hurt people if necessary.  He again categorized me as Less Able.  And of course, if I had called him, his mere presence would have been a preventative because the potential perpetrator would also categorize me as Less Able, and him as More.  Boss was correct only because he and the perpetrator both share the same sexist view of women!

Benevolent sexism is more insidious than the overt kind.  Because it comes across as caring, we are made to feel guilty if we dislike it, or even just recognize it as sexism.  It programs women (and girls) to categorize themselves as Less Able, and that alone is a danger, because a woman who doesn’t believe herself to be capable will in fact not be capable.  And this in turn reinforces the very wrong societal view of us as Less Able Than Men, which in the minds of many equates to Less Than Men, which then becomes Here For Men, and then Creepy Guy is free to feel that any random woman he encounters should be ready to appease his desires.  (Benevolent sexism also hurts men.  Take for instance the amazement with which people react to a father capably handling the household while the mother is away.  What does that say about our understanding of fathers?)

I refuse to be shamed into accepting a lesser view of myself and the women around me.   I refuse to feel guilty for calling out sexism when I see it.  I refuse to accept the idea that my experience, on my side of a sexist incident, is less important than the experience and intentions of the man on the other side.

I reject the notion that calling out sexism means I’m angry or offended, as well, or that being angry or offended (when I am) is even a bad thing.  We have to talk about this.  If we don’t talk about it, nothing will change.  And we desperately need things to change.