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Meta-analysis Links Benevolent Sexism to Violence against Women

Treating a woman as a 'beautiful but weak princess' can mask hostility

Situation: Violence against women is often ascribed to social disadvantage, mental health problems, or addiction.

In fact: Sexist attitudes, alongside individual and social factors, can make people likely to support violence against women. This is also true of the so-called 'benevolent' sexism that sees women as ‘delicate and in need of protection'.

More Details

HSE researchers Elena Agadullina, Andrey Lovakov, Maryana Balezina and Olga Gulevich examined the potential links between different types of sexism – hostile and benevolent – and the likelihood of supporting or practicing violence against women. The authors conducted a meta-analysis of academic literature to find out how sexist attitudes can contribute to violence. Having analysed more than 150 papers that discuss associations between sexism and violence, the researchers found both hostile and benevolent sexism to be associated with violence against women, although their respective roles in triggering violent behaviour are different. A preprint of the findings has been published in PsyArXiv Preprints.

What Is It All About?

Traditionally, sexism was viewed as a manifestation of hostile and contemptuous attitudes toward women. This view, however, has been replaced in the past twenty years by recognition of the ambivalent nature of sexism. The Ambivalent Sexism Theory distinguishes two types of sexist attitudes towards women: hostile and benevolent.

Hostile sexism refers to an explicitly negative attitude towards women, especially to those who claim power and refuse to submit to traditional gender roles. An important characteristic of hostile sexism is a belief that women are less competent than men, and therefore seek to usurp men's power or to subordinate men using underhand ways such as sexual manipulation or falsely accusing men of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

In contrast, benevolent sexism is a seemingly positive gender stereotype emphasising men's traditional role of protecting and providing for women – as long as the latter conform to their prescribed gender role. According to the paper's co-author Elena Agadullina, this type of sexist man can present himself as a 'strong and gallant knight' treating women as 'beautiful and delicate princesses'.

Despite a perceived contradiction between hostile and benevolent types of sexism, both attitudes have been found to contribute to gender inequality and to perpetuate men's dominance in society, each in their own way.

Research evidence is mixed as to how exactly these two forms of sexism are associated with gender-based violence. According to some papers, there are both commonalities and differences in their association with violence against women. On one hand, both hostile and benevolent sexists assert male dominance. Yet on the other hand, the benevolent type also believe that women must be protected from violence.

Other papers suggest that both types of sexism are positively associated with the endorsement of physical violence and controlling and disrespectful behaviour, because even benevolent sexists tend to support abuse against women who challenge gender stereotypes. In such cases, victims are often blamed for the abuse.

According to the authors, their paper is the first attempt to examine the respective effects of benevolent and hostile sexism on violence, based on an extensive desk review.

How Was It Studied?

The authors conducted a meta-analysis of available literature. They searched Scopus, Web of Science, EBSCO and other databases for articles on the topic, using search terms such as ambivalent sexism, hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, etc. The initial search produced 11,484 documents, from which the authors selected 152 papers written in Russian, English, German, French and Portuguese; 37 papers examined the relationship between ambivalent sexism and manifestations of violence, and 124 papers explored the association between ambivalent sexism and attitudes towards violence against women.

What Did They Find?

The meta-analysis confirmed that that both hostile and benevolent types of sexism were independently and significantly associated with attitudes that support and legitimise violence against women. The effect of hostile sexism, however, was found to be much stronger.

Violence can manifest in various forms, such as physical, sexual and psychological. While psychological violence is not always perceived as a form of abuse, it can cause serious harm to the victim’s mental health and often involves threats, manipulation, undermining another's self-esteem and restricting their freedom.

Only hostile sexism was found to be associated with direct perpetration of gender-based violence; in other words, hostile sexists are more likely to be physically violent. But boundaries between the two types of sexism are not set in stone, and a benevolent sexist can become hostile towards a woman who, in his opinion, falls short of her proper gender role.

According to the authors, benevolent sexism is not really about protecting women from abuse; instead, it is a cover-up for a more aggressive, hostile type of sexism.

That said, benevolent sexism remains a socially acceptable attitude, and some women expect protective behaviour from men. This can give a sense of financial and physical security, but they can face hostile sexism and risk abuse should the man feel the need to assert his dominance.

The researchers emphasise that sexism is strongly associated with supportive attitudes towards violence against women, but not with the practice of violence. According to the authors, while sexists contribute to a discourse that justifies gender-based violence, a tendency to perpetrate violence is more likely to be associated with other individual and social factors.

Why Should We Care?

Gender-based violence against women is a serious human rights and public health problem. According to the World Health Organisation and recent evidence, violence negatively affects physical health (causing higher mortality, reproductive problems, difficulty carrying a pregnancy, etc.), mental health (e.g. higher risk of depression and PTSD), and women’s social and economic status.

It has been clearly established that women affected by intimate partner violence face higher risks of unemployment, divorce, and alcohol and drug abuse. Therefore, examining factors that may contribute to gender-based violence is essential. According to the authors, the findings from such studies can help develop appropriate and effective social and educational interventions.

Study authors:

Elena Agadullina, Head of Laboratory for Psychology of Social Inequality

Andrey Lovakov, Junior Research Fellow, HSE International Research Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms

Maryana Balezina, Postgraduate Student, HSE School of Psychology

Olga Gulevich, Head of Laboratory for Politics and Psychology Research


Author: Marina Selina, November 29, 2022