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Children Who Show Benevolent Sexism Also More Likely to Show Hostile Sexism

Children who hold seemingly positive, “benevolent” views about women are also likely to hold negative ones, according to a new study.

The study also found that there are differences between how these views change over time between boys and girls: Negative, or hostile, sexist perceptions decline for both boys and girls as they get older, but “benevolent” sexist ones diminish only for girls.

“It might seem cute when a boy acts in chivalrous ways toward girls, or when a girl pretends to be a princess who’s waiting for a prince to rescue her,” said Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and one of the authors of the study. “Many times, this is just play, with no deeper meaning. But other times, these behaviors, even though they may seem inoffensive, might signal that children view women in a negative light, as weak, incompetent, and unable to survive or thrive without a man’s help.”

“It is encouraging to note that this work also reveals how these attitudes evolve with age for boys and girls, albeit unevenly,” added first author Matthew Hammond, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington.

Many people understand that the term “sexism” refers to overtly negative attitudes toward women, according to the researchers. This includes perceptions that women are weak, incompetent, or overly emotional.

However, there’s another aspect of sexism that is often overlooked — what researchers call “benevolent sexism.” This consists of attitudes that may appear positive, but are still undermining of and patronizing toward women — for instance, that women should be warm, caring, pure, and deserve to be put on a pedestal.

Previous studies have shown that adults who hold sexist views that are hostile also possess ones that are benevolent, the researchers noted. But less clear is whether children also hold these perceptions and whether these views change through childhood.

To address this, the researchers looked at the attitudes of more than 200 children, between the ages of 5 and 11, in two locations: New York City and Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

The children were asked if a series of statements were “right” or “wrong.” The statements included both benevolent views (“Men need to protect women from danger”) and hostile ones (“Women get more upset than men about small things”).

In analyzing children’s agreement and disagreement with these statements, the researchers found that children gave statistically distinct patterns of responses to the statements expressing hostile and benevolent views about women. Importantly, however, they also found an association between these types of views, meaning that if a child agreed with a hostile statement, then he or she was also likely to agree with a benevolent one.

“This is something we did not know before about young children’s gender attitudes,” Cimpian said.

The findings also showed that children’s hostile sexism decreased with age for both boys and girls. However, benevolent sexism decreased with age only for girls.

“Boys may be less likely to recognize that their benevolent attitudes toward women are, in fact, patronizing,” Cimpian said. “For instance, they may hold on to the belief that men ought to protect women because this view is in line with social norms and may be reinforced throughout their upbringing.”

The researchers said current circumstances are a chance to address many of the concerns the study’s findings raise.

“Parents and kids are spending a lot of time together these days, so there are plenty of opportunities for conversation,” Hammond said. “It could be worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing what they think men and women should be.”

The study was published in the journal Sex Roles.

Source: New York University

Children Who Show Benevolent Sexism Also More Likely to Show Hostile Sexism

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Children Who Show Benevolent Sexism Also More Likely to Show Hostile Sexism. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 May 2020 (Originally: 1 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 1 May 2020
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