What makes gender relations so special compared to other kinds of intergroup relations (based on race, ethnicity, etc.)? Some of what sets (at least heteronormative) gender relations apart is that they involve a lot of mutual dependency. Many men and women are in constant interaction. They often live together, love each other, and literally depend on each other to produce life. This interdependence motivates men and women to cooperate and avoid open conflict, even in the face of societal gender inequalities.

Helping dynamics are a good example of such cooperation: Men and women often offer and ask each other for help. On the surface, helping is a good thing because it involves kind intentions and behaviors. But, the irony is that this cooperation is nuanced, it has important details and flavors. My colleagues and I are working to understand how certain types of help can in fact reinforce traditional gender roles. In a series of experiments with more than 4,000 participants, we assess men's and women's actual behaviors within settings in which help could be sought or provided.

Prince Charming Helps Women Stay Where They Are

Perhaps the most prevalent form of gendered helping is male chivalry: when men behave courteously toward women ("ladies first!"). Chivalrous helping assumes that men can and should provide benevolent and heroic kinds of help to women, and that women need help because they can't take care of themselves.

This common practice led us to examine gendered helping in traditionally masculine domains—those in which chivalrous behavior is most likely to occur. We found that some women seek—and some men offer—dependency-oriented help (direct assistance) instead of autonomy-oriented help (enabling women to cope independently). For example, getting the final answer to a difficult math problem instead of an explanation on how to solve the problem on their own, or having a man park a car instead of a woman rather than guiding her. This helping dynamic occurs only in cross-gender interactions (when men and women are interacting with each other) but not in same-gender interactions (when men and women are interacting with members of their own gender). This means the dynamic we uncovered isn't just something about men-in-general or women-in-general. Thus, cross-gender helping relations subtly reinforce women's dependency in domains in which they are already stereotypically perceived as inferior to men.

Need Some Help With the Dishes, Honey?

We also looked at the "mirror image" of this dynamic—what happens when men need help. Because of prescriptive stereotypes about men's agency and independence, men are generally reluctant to seek help in response to various difficulties. We thought that this tendency may flip when men need help in traditionally feminine domestic tasks. In fact, the domestic sphere is a unique context because gender roles prescribe that men should be passive and helpless when tackling domestic tasks and that women should act as their saviors.

Consider a man faced with changing a diaper who needs assistance from his female partner. He may be likely to ask her to change the diaper for him rather than ask her to teach him how to do it himself such that next time he will be able to cope independently. Likewise, his female partner may be likely to offer to change the diaper for him rather than to explain to him how to do it by himself.

Following this logic, we found that when men are required to do domestic tasks (such as child care or house cleaning), they seek—and women offer them—dependency-oriented help instead of autonomy-oriented help. In heterosexual couples, engagement in dependent helping relations further translated into a more unequal division of housework—in other words, when women do these tasks for men rather than explaining to them how to do it, it actually sustains gender differences in domestic labor.

Who Are the Men and Women Most Likely to Engage in Dependent Helping Relations?

Our findings suggest that engagement in dependent helping relations is more frequent in people who endorse benevolent sexism—a particularly appealing social ideology that underlies the core of gendered cooperation. Benevolent sexism idealizes heterosexual love based on the notion that men and women have different, yet complementary, traits and responsibilities. For example, women are endowed with traits such as nurturance and good home decorating taste, which make them especially suitable for the domestic childrearing sphere. By contrast, men are believed to have agentic traits such as competitiveness and assertiveness, which makes them more suitable for the public, managerial sphere.

Why Should We Care About This?

Men and women appear to help one another but in ways that prevent them from acquiring the means for independent coping in domains in which they are stereotyped to be inferior. Thus, this helping dynamic reinforces gender roles because, in the end, only men know how to park a car, and only women know how to change a diaper. These beliefs and behaviors contribute to perpetuating women's relatively low entry and advancement in traditionally masculine domains such as science or engineering, as well as men's low involvement in domestic domains. Clearly, breaking down the psychological barriers impeding gender equality in traditional gendered domains, and the social ideologies that support it, can potentially benefit everyone—women and men alike.

For Further Reading

Bareket, O., Shnabel, N., Kende, A., Knab, N., & Bar-Anan, Y. (2021). Need some help, honey? Dependency-oriented helping relations between women and men in the domestic sphere. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(5), 1175–1203. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000292

Shnabel, N., Bar-Anan, Y., Kende, A., Bareket, O., & Lazar, Y. (2016). Help to perpetuate traditional gender roles: Benevolent sexism increases engagement in dependency-oriented cross-gender helping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(1), 55–75. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000037

Bareket, O., Ein-Gar, D., & Kogut, T. (2022). I will help you survive but not thrive: Helping decisions in situations that empower women. Advance online publication. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684302221108437

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56(2), 109–118. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.56.2.109

Orly Bareket is a postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University. Her work identifies subtle psychological processes that hinder gender equality and the associated personal and professional costs for those who engage in them.