Breaking Through Bias: Beware Benevolent Bias

Many women work for male supervisors who treat them in what appear to be kind and considerate ways. This benevolent behavior is often shown through frequent expressions of concern for a woman’s welfare, solicitousness as to her domestic responsibilities, and “extra” assistance with her job. Undoubtedly, people of goodwill are to be valued not avoided, but too often such apparently kindly attitudes of this sort mask an underlying sexism. Such attitudes often come from a sense of paternalism, an assumption women need to be protected, directed, and assisted by a man when they are in the workplace.

Benevolently sexist supervisors can also package traditional gender stereotypes in a tempting way by making it clear that embracing these stereotypes will enhance your subjective life satisfaction. Benevolent sexism is all about the maintenance of traditional gender roles: kind, vulnerable women and strong, protective men. Benevolent sexism promotes these traditional gender roles as appropriate, fair, and desirable. When a woman sees her workplace in this way, functioning fairly with balanced, complementary, but unequal gender roles, and she conforms to these traditional stereotypes, she is far more likely to find her job comfortable and less stressful than she would if she stepped out of traditional gender roles and exhibited strong agentic qualities.

Supervisors with benevolently sexist attitudes often highly praise women for their performance but assign them to devalued projects. If supervisors think (consciously or unconsciously) that women are emotional, weak, and sensitive, those supervisors are likely to give them easy assignments, “protecting” them from the difficulties and struggles inherent in challenging, competitive work. This is not the kind of help you need.

A 2012 study of a New York law firm’s performance evaluations of its associates provides a classic illustration of benevolent sexism. The researchers found that the women received more positive comments (Excellent! Stellar! Terrific!) than the men did, but only 6 percent of the women, compared with 15 percent of the men, were mentioned as potential partner material.

Too many women find themselves in situations in which they receive a lot of praise but slight real career opportunities. If you find yourself in such a situation, it is a sure sign your supervisors think you are nice, but not one suitable for a leadership role. If this pattern continues for any significant period of time, your skills will dull, your self-doubt will increase, and your ambition will diminish. This will not allow you to advance in your career.

The dangers a woman faces in a benevolently sexist environment can best be understood by looking at a normal career advancement path. Moving up depends upon your professional development: acquiring the knowledge, skills, and organizational savvy to be recognized as a person of competence, confidence, and potential. The only way to acquire these traits is with challenging work experiences that allow—and force—you to learn, develop, and prove yourself.

A challenging work experience is one that is difficult, stimulating, and unfamiliar. It stretches your abilities and tests your determination. It helps you gain substantive knowledge and deeper insights into the complexities of your job. And, it also helps you gain self-confidence, which in turn encourages you to seek out and volunteer for even more challenging projects in the future. Not surprisingly, the frequency, quantity, variety, and difficulty of your work experiences are highly predictive of the pace and extent of your career advancement. When you are engaged in a challenging project, you are in a spotlight and your supervisors are watching closely. Therefore, these sorts of projects provide you the chance to demonstrate that you are ready to move up in your career.

If, instead of giving you—or forcing you to take—challenging projects, your supervisors help you with your work or protect you from this sort of experience, you will never develop the skills, resilience, and confidence you need to realize your career aspirations. If you are excluded from high-profile projects that entail extensive travel or long hours; if you are given special breaks and a bit of extra help because you are a mother; if you are criticized less than comparably situated men for the same sort of job performance; and if you are encouraged not to stay late or take on extra work, guess who will lack the experience to be seriously considered when the time comes for the next round of promotions?

All of this should be obvious enough: to advance in your career you need to develop broad and deep career-relevant skills, and to do this, you need to push yourself and be pushed by your supervisors. You need more—not fewer—challenges at work. But if you are put on a pedestal, so to speak, because you are thought to have a mild and sensitive nature, you will not be exposed to the rough and tumble competitive struggles characteristic of high-pressure executive and professional lives. You need to be wary of supervisors and career gatekeepers who exhibit respectful, caring, concerned, and protective attitudes, or who express a solicitous concern for your personal welfare. You need to be pushed, not protected; you need to be thrown into the game, not kept safe on the sidelines. Kindness shown toward you that is not also shown toward comparably situated men is sexism, plain and simple, and its consequences are anything but benevolent.

The temptation to accept and enjoy benevolent sexism is very real. But the apple that is being offered is truly a poisoned fruit. If you buy psychological satisfaction at the cost of accepting a discriminatory work environment as fair and appropriate, you have also bought yourself decreased self-esteem, increased depression, reduced confidence, and greatly diminished proactivity. Beware of benevolent supervisors who want to help you manage work and family; they come bearing gifts that will not lead to a fulfilling career.

by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris

This article is adapted with permission from Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris, Copyright © 2016 by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris. Published by Bibliomotion, Inc.


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