A former student of mine, Shannon, conducted her masters thesis on benevolent sexism, which describes positive attitudes toward women in traditional roles, including things like protective paternalism and an idealization of women. Her theory was that people who are benevolently sexist, although having positive feelings toward women, tend to have very narrow expectations of their abilities and interests. In fact, they often take a hand in limiting a female’s opportunities because of their preconceived ideas about what that person will like, be good at, etc.
One of the things that was most interesting about Shannon’s work to me, as a woman, was that I have been treated with benevolent sexism many times. For example, several years ago a male colleague heard about an opportunity that was within my area of interest, but didn’t share it with me, but with another male that wasn’t really as interested in this topic as I was. When I asked him why he didn’t think of me, since my interests were so closely aligned with the topic, he said he didn’t think it would be good for me to take this opportunity since I was a mother. His attitude baffled me. I am, after all, a professional, right? Shouldn’t I be the one to decide how to balance my work and personal life? I am certain that this wouldn’t have been said to a man. My colleague didn’t mean me any harm at all, in fact, I believe he was trying to protect me. But when we close doors to opportunities or refuse to open them for people because of their gender, that’s sexism, regardless of our intent.
In my opinion, benevolent sexism is especially harmful to children. And, I believe that it can be extended to both genders. Whenever we, as adults, limit a child’s exposure to an opportunity for learning, growth, or experience primarily because of gender, we are exhibiting benevolent sexism. When teachers don’t call on girls to answer the difficult problems in math, when we take only our girls to a dance performance, when we teach only our sons to build a campfire or fix a car and only our daughters to paint or cook, we are exhibiting benevolent sexism.
I have a friend whose son is an amazing dancer, and it happens to be the one area in which he truly excels. What if, because of his gender, he had never been introduced to dance? That one true strength would have been lost. Not long ago, my middle school daughter chose to get up on a Saturday morning to attend a day long engineering and technology camp. She excels in math, sciences, and technology. Research tells us that once kids are in middle school, teachers tend to provide more opportunities and positive feedback to boys about their performance in the areas of math and science than they do to girls. What if, because of a lack of positive response and opportunity, my daughter turns away from her natural talents?
I, for one, am going to make sure that I strive to provide the children in my life with opportunities to explore their talents and interests in many areas. It’s time for adults to open their eyes to the strengths of the children in their lives and provide them with the chance to thrive in those, regardless of their gender. It’s time for adolescents to speak up when someone tries to limit their opportunities solely because of gender. If a parent or loved one says, “You wouldn’t like that” ask them why! Tell them that you’d like the chance to try it. It’s time to stop seeing gender as a limitation and begin providing a wide range of opportunities for growth and learning for all children.