Researchers have offered an explanation for why some women can buy in to sexist culture

The Handmaid’s Tale. Rosalind O’Connor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Researchers have offered a theory for why some women might support sexist social systems that disadvantage them and hold them back from contributing to gender equality initiatives.

A study published in the Australian Journal of Psychology used data from a survey of 10,485 New Zealand women and 269 American women about social attitudes, including whether they believe a gender hierarchy is fair and if they feel a personal need for protection from men.

The scientists say women who believe relationships between groups should be based on a hierarchy rather than on equality also usually have a “benevolently sexist word view”.

While they have a positive view of women, they see their own low-status place in the gender hierarchy as fair.

This attitude may contribute to discrimination in the workplace and prevent women from joining in collective action for greater gender equality, say the scientists.

Social psychologist Fiona Barlow, at the University of Queensland, says the study found women who believed that relationships between groups should be based on a hierarchy rather than on equality also felt that they needed to rely on men to protect, and provide, for them.

“Women who support the social hierarchy in general also appear to be high in benevolent sexism — meaning what while they hold a generally positive view of women, they see their own low-status place in the gender hierarchy as fair,” Dr Barlow says.

“Benevolent sexism concerns revering traditional women, provided that they do not violate traditional norms, like being an outspoken feminist or an ambitious career woman.

“This ideology also concerns the idea that it is men’s obligation to look after and protect ‘good’ women.

“This helps to explain how some women can support, or even fight for, limitations on what women are allowed to do.”

Dr Barlow likens this to the character Serena Joy does in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is now a television series based on the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood.

“These kinds of beliefs may be contributing to discrimination in the workplace and preventing women from participating in collective action for greater gender equality,” she says.

More research is needed into why this attitude exists, the researchers say.

The other authors of the paper — Negotiating the hierarchy: Social dominance orientation among women is associated with the endorsement of benevolent sexism — are: Helena R. M. Radk, University of Osnabrück, Germany; Matthew J. Hornsey at the University of Queensland; and Chris G. Sibley, School of Psychology, University of Auckland.

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