A former Fox News anchor's lawsuit exposed a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, showcasing how women are often publicly demeaned. This provided a clear instance of hostile sexism, which views women as threats to male dominance and actively resists their empowerment. Hostile sexism sends the message, "You should not do this because you're a woman," and is aggressive and easy to spot.

Meanwhile, some companies, including Google, have faced internal conflicts and public scrutiny due to employees praising women's nurturing abilities and team spirit, yet seldom considering them for leadership roles. This illustrates the more insidious nature of benevolent sexism, which operates under the guise of protection, as when a boss assigns simpler or safer tasks to a woman, inadvertently stifling her potential. Masquerading as chivalry, it subtly fits women into gender roles that portray them as inherently weaker or less capable.

Together, these scenarios exemplify ambivalent sexism—a concept that captures the patronizing yet aggressive dual nature of sexism. Ambivalent sexism explains why true gender equality remains elusive despite considerable progress over the 21st century.

Unpacking the Research: A Deep Dive into Ambivalent Sexism

We conducted a systematic review of the ambivalent sexism literature, aiming to capture how hostile and benevolent sexism coexist and manifest today. We sifted through nearly 1,900 empirical studies, applying stringent criteria to methodically narrow them down to a core set of 654 studies that used the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory for measurement or manipulation. We analyzed these studies, focusing on their main outcomes, methods, participant demographics, and situational contexts.

This process pinpointed five key areas in ambivalent sexism research: social ideologies, violence, workplace, stereotypes, and intimate relationships. Examining the dominant patterns both within these areas and interconnecting them revealed how sexism keeps gender inequality alive, with each form making distinct contributions. Here are some of our findings:

Hostile Sexism: The Blatant Battle

Hostile sexism upholds the existing power dynamics that typically advantage men. It achieves this by persistently directing derogatory treatment toward women in diverse settings, from professional environments to romantic relationships. Hostile sexism is not merely offensive; our evidence shows it inflicts real harm. It manifests through aggressive actions, including violence against women, by strangers and intimate partners.

Hostile sexism creates obstacles in women's careers, such as being overlooked for promotions or deemed less worthy than male colleagues, effectively barring women from high-power positions and male-dominated fields. Hostile sexism seeps into politics (such as bias against female candidates) and media representations (where, for example, online gaming becomes a platform for harassment and objectification). Hostile sexism shapes how men interact with women, not just in daily encounters but also in romantic partnerships. It fosters a toxic cycle of control and mistrust that can lead to communication breakdowns or even relationship dissolution.

Benevolent Sexism: The Hidden Hand

Benevolent sexism, under the guise of tradition and protective care, subtly imposes control. In professional settings, benevolent sexism translates into women not being taken seriously or receiving excessive support, contingent on conforming to traditional roles (for example, remaining in "feminine" positions). Benevolent sexism also shows up in how people think about romance, such as the expectation that men should always pay for dates or make the big decisions, and women's acceptance of protective restrictions imposed by their partners (such as monitoring their social interactions, their involvement in potentially dangerous activities, or dictating their choice of attire). This sexism relegates women to primary caregivers and homemakers, and men to breadwinners. These attitudes can lead to frustration in romantic relationships when expectations and aspirations clash (such as women's disillusionment when male partners fail to meet "prince charming" ideals).

Benevolent sexism not only externally constrains women but also fosters their own subjugation, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where women internalize and accept the status quo (thus refraining from advocating for gender equality), align with restrictive stereotypes (such as overemphasis on appearance), and diminish their cognitive performance (due to doubts about their abilities).

Why It Matters: Sexism's Toll on Everyone

Hostile and benevolent sexism work together in a "carrot and stick" approach, perpetuating structures that favor men. While both forms aim to control women, hostile sexism uses overt and aggressive tactics, leaning on competition over status and resources. Conversely, benevolent sexism relies on paternalism and differentiation tactics, encouraging gender-role cooperation.

This dual nature permeates the very fabric of daily interactions, molding expectations and behaviors. In a world where women constitute half the population, sexism is not "merely" a women's issue; it represents a societal challenge with implications for everyone. Men also bear the consequences of ambivalent sexism, which restricts their opportunities and shapes their well-being, career paths, and interpersonal and intimate relationships, despite their social privilege.

Interventions to counter ambivalent sexism are rare, but hostile sexism may be more amenable to change than benevolent sexism. Combatting sexism involves education and raising awareness about its overt and subtle forms. Ultimately, recognizing and addressing both hostile and benevolent sexism is key to progress toward a society where gender equality is not merely an ideal but a reality.

For Further Reading

Bareket, O., & Fiske, S. T. (2023). A systematic review of ambivalent sexism: Hostile sexism protects men's power; benevolent sexism guards traditional gender roles. Psychological Bulletin, 149(11-12), 637–698. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000400

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(3), 491–512. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.491

Orly Bareket is an assistant professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the director of the Social Relations Lab. Her research focuses on understanding the psychological processes underlying social roles, particularly as they relate to gender equality and their impacts on individuals across various aspects of life.

Susan T. Fiske is an emeritus Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, as well as an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Her research focuses on advancing the scientific understanding of social cognition, intergroup stereotyping, discrimination, and inequality.