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Hello! I'm Ashley.

I’m a Christian feminist, writer, speaker, TV producer, news pundit, ordained reverend, and abuse-victim advocate who educates churches and secular communities on abuse. I’m the founder of The Courage Conference, for survivors of abuse—and those who love them.

The Hidden Sexism In the Church: Why “benevolent” sexism does more harm than we realize

The Hidden Sexism In the Church: Why “benevolent” sexism does more harm than we realize

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I would like to present to you a brilliant and well-researched guest post by Jen Zamzow.

Jen Zamzow has a Ph.D. in philosophy and cognitive science from the University of Arizona. She lives in Michigan with her husband and two little boys and teaches ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at

The Hidden Sexism In the Church: Why “benevolent” sexism does more harm than we realize

After spending decades in the dark, the issues of sexism and sexual abuse in the Protestant Church have finally come front and center. In the wake of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, offensive behaviors towards women that were once ignored are now being publicly called out.

For instance, when Courtland Sykes, a candidate for the Republican nomination in Missouri’s U.S. Senate race, recently called feminists “she-devils” with “nasty, snake-filled heads” and said, “I want to come home to a home cooked dinner at six every night, one that she [his fiancé] fixes and one that I expect one day to have my daughters learn to fix after they become traditional homemakers and family wives,” he got taken to task on social media.  

Comments such as Sykes’ are known as “hostile sexism,” and their flagrant objectification and degradation of women make them easy to recognize. We know that when someone says you have a “nasty, snake-filled head,” they clearly don’t mean it as a compliment.

But what if there are attitudes and behaviors that we’re failing to call out because we’re not even noticing them?

One problem with sexism is that it’s not always obvious. In fact, sexism can sometimes even appear nice. This type of attitude, known as “benevolent sexism,” characterizes women as “pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete.”

While cherishing women and placing them on a pedestal might seem harmless, there are actually serious costs to benevolent sexism. Ashley had an excellent post where she addressed the connection between benevolent sexist attitudes and abuse (see her “Why Patriarchy is Abuse”). In this post, I want to build on her discussion and raise three reasons we should worry about benevolent sexism.  

1. Benevolent sexism leads us to judge women as less competent

Even though stereotypes of women as helpful, kind, and nurturing have a positive side, perceptions of warmth and competence are often inversely related—the more we think of a person or group as warm, the less we think of them as competent.

Even witnessing another person treating a woman in a benevolently sexist way can negatively affect our views of that woman’s competence. We can see an example of this in a research study by psychologists Jessica Good and Laurie Rudman. They had participants read job interview transcripts in which a male manager interviewed a female job applicant in either a non-sexist manner (by simply describing the duties of the job), a hostile sexist manner (by telling the applicant that “most women simply aren’t cut out to manage the warehouse and oversee the use of heavy equipment”), or a benevolent sexist manner (by telling the applicant that the job can be a little dangerous but that “the guys would probably be happy to help a nice young lady like you do whatever you need”).

Good and Rudman found that the more the participants liked the sexist interviewer, the lower they rated the applicant’s competency and the less likely they were to say they would hire her. This might be especially worrisome for benevolent sexists because they are often seen as likable and chivalrous or polite.

2. Benevolent sexism negatively affects women’s performance

Not only does benevolent sexism affect people’s views of women’s competency, it also affects women’s actual performance. In fact, cognitive scientist Benoit Dardenne and colleagues found that being exposed to benevolent sexism made women perform even worse on a job recruitment test than those exposed to hostile sexism.

3. Benevolent sexism makes women less likely to want to be leaders

Research also suggests that being exposed to benevolent sexism can hinder women’s leadership aspirations. For instance, Manuela Barreto and colleagues found that when women were exposed to benevolent sexism they were more likely to describe themselves in relational terms rather than task-related terms and they were more likely to delegate leadership positions to male team members, especially when they thought they would have to interact with the sexist individual again.

What should we do about benevolent sexism in the church?

This can have serious implications not only for how we treat women in the workplace, but also for what roles we allow or encourage them to play in the church. If benevolent sexism leads us to judge women as less competent, negatively affects women’s performance, and makes them less likely to want to lead, then it is not as harmless as it initially appears. Benevolent sexism serves to reinforce the false notion that women are not “cut out” for leadership by treating women in ways that make it harder for them to succeed as leaders and then taking their failure as a sign of their own inability instead of recognizing the significant influences of the environment.

How can we address this issue in the church? When a problem is both subtle and entrenched in the culture, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Take it seriously

One place we can start is by taking benevolent sexism seriously even in cases where we think the individual means well. The problem with benevolent sexist behavior is that it goes beyond how that individual views the woman; as Good and Rudman found, even well-intentioned benevolent sexist behavior can trigger other people to negatively evaluate the woman.  

Share your knowledge

Another step we can take is to raise awareness of the damage benevolent sexism can cause. One aim in raising awareness is to help prevent the problem. Unlike hostile sexism, benevolent sexism is not always intended as a way to demean women. Many people who engage in benevolent sexist behavior might not realize the negative effects their actions have on women. Drawing people’s attention to the effects of benevolent sexism that Ashley and I have raised can help give those who genuinely want to treat women well and give them a voice in the church a better understanding of how to do that.  

The other aim of raising awareness is to help those who are victims of benevolent sexism. Because the harm it causes is less obvious than that of hostile sexism, it can be easy for people to dismiss it as no big deal. But when the damage caused by benevolent sexism is simply dismissed, this can make women feel unacknowledged or misunderstood. When we acknowledge that benevolent sexism can cause real harm and empathize with those who experience it, we can legitimate their experiences and begin to move forward in creating a more equal place for both men and women in the church.  

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Twitter: @jlzamzow 

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