As International Women’s Day has gone, there has been a renewed focus on the plight of women in the workplace. Whilst many organisations now proclaim to be offering equal opportunities for both sexes, there remains a sense that much of this is lip service. Female presence in our boardrooms remains scant, and the prickly issue of equal pay lingers on.
Deciphering between what is said and what is actually done would seem a fundamental challenge in the battle for equality in the workplace. A recent study from researchers at Northeastern University suggests that, on an individual level at least, the way men smile may give away a major clue as to how they really feel about females.
The researchers distinguish between what they call hostile sexism and its more benevolent peer. The hostile variety tends to manifest itself in open dislike of women, or at least an antipathy towards them. As such, the behaviours that reflect this kind tend to be more overt and visible.
Benevolent sexism however might appear much less negative, at least on the surface, and can indeed come across as paternalistic and chivalrous. It reflects a form of a more well intentioned sexism that portrays certain ’feminine’ characteristics, such as warmth and helplessness that therefore require male protection.
The hidden meaning in our communication
The researchers specifically wanted to test whether the kind of words men use, their attitudes and even the way they smile could reveal anything about their thoughts about the opposite sex. The authors believe their study is the first of its kind to explore both verbal and nonverbal communication, and how these might indicate whether the man displays hostile or benevolent sexism towards women.
They filmed a group of men and women interacting with one another whilst they were playing a simple trivia based game with one another. The film was then pored over by independent observers to record the impressions of both side and whether they displayed certain nonverbal cues, such as smiling.
The results revealed that when a man was sexist in a hostile way, their speech was much less friendly and they were deemed less approachable. What’s more, they also tended to smile less. That seems fairly straight forward.
For men who were sexist in a more benevolent way however, they were rated as much warmer, friendlier and more approachable, whilst also being more prone to smiling than their peers. They would also utilise positive emotional words in their speech, and were usually more patient with their female peers on the trivia tasks.
"While many people are sensitive to sexist verbal offenses, they may not readily associate sexism with warmth and friendliness," the authors say. "Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society."
"Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level," they continue. "These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless."
All of which raises the question of just what non-sexist behaviour looks like. On that, the paper was much less forthcoming.