Working Woman's Guide to ... Benevolent Sexism

Women’s careers are impacted by ‘benevolent sexism’. 

A client announces her pregnancy and without discussion choices are made about the work she then gets … she notices that more demanding work is taken away from her or not offered to her in the first place.

Another client receives unsolicited help from a male colleague. She then overhears the ‘helper’ showcasing the help they’ve offered to a more senior leader … She experiences a double hit. She is deprived of the opportunity to grow in her role by problem-solving, and her reputation is managed for her, at her expense and her male colleague’s gain. 

Studies show that a deep-rooted, subconscious desire to protect women means that they receive less candid developmental feedback, are offered less challenging assignments, receive more offers of unsolicited help and are subjected to more untested assumptions about what types of stretch opportunity they will be open to.

Women miss out on clear, constructive feedback that helps them see their performance blind spots. They are more likely to receive bland, unactionable commentary that does nothing to help them tackle their weaker areas. (While their male colleagues receive clear areas to improve that they then can work on and evidence their progress).

Female employees are offered more unsolicited help. This help is assumptive (it assumes that the person receiving it can’t do the task without the help). This unwanted help reduces women’s opportunities to hone their problem-solving skills, undermines their self-confidence and allows others to take credit for results.

It doesn’t stop there. The subconscious desire to protect women means that even when women show an equal level of interest in a risky or challenging assignment, they are less likely than men to be selected for it.

Women are on the receiving end of more untested assumptions about what they might be willing to do. Where an opportunity involves travel, relocation or long hours, women are less likely than men to be considered for it.

Over time, this ‘benevolent sexism’ reduces women’s exposure to development opportunities and profile-raising assignments, which in turn reduces their chances of promotion and pay increases. 

And remember, this isn’t just men being benevolently sexist to women – it’s women as well.

So what can you do about benevolent sexism? Coaching prompts:

  • Do you receive unwanted help? Are you offered stretch assignments? Do you receive clear feedback around how you can improve your work? Do others make assumptions about what kind of stretch, challenge or risk you may be open to?

  • Are there ways you might be engaging in benevolent sexism with the women around you. Invite feedback from women you line manage, your boss and your peers and team members to give you some insights.

  • What kinds of untested assumptions are made about women’s willingness to take on stretch opportunities in your team and organisation? Notice where this is happening, call it out and choose to ask rather than assume.

  • Educate men and women on the signs of benevolent sexism and how to avoid it.

 What are you curious about? What’s most useful to you? Leave a comment!  


Kristen Jones and Eden King (September 2016), Stop ‘Protecting’ Women from Challenging Work, Harvard Business Review.


Further resources

This article is adapted from Catalyst Collective report Gender Pay Gap – What Next? You can get your own copy HERE

The team at Catalyst Collective have synthesised the research on what actually makes a difference – and we’ve summarised that for you into 10 clear easy-to-action steps so that you can start shifting the reality inside your organisation right now. 

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