Benevolent sexism in the workplace – what it is and its impact on women

A well-meaning CEO admitted recently in conversation that he ruled a woman executive out of the running for a more senior role. The job required a move abroad and the CEO felt it might be too much for the woman as she had just returned from maternity leave.

We know from Catalyst research that women want the top jobs and take the correct steps to succeed, however inbuilt biases and social stereotypes hold them back.

A man’s view on stopping misogyny at work

HR not doing enough to combat sexist behaviour in the workplace

The Handford Parish Council viral zoom meeting showcased everyday sexism at work

This leader had decided what was best for the woman and her family, assuming perhaps she was the main caregiver and a lesser earner, rather than consulting her.

While his actions were well meant, research shows women are often over-looked for these top visibility jobs which can propel individuals to the top. 

Worryingly, we found that the more senior the man the more likely he is to behave in a benevolently sexist manner. We define ‘benevolent sexism’ as holding a stereotypical gendered view of a person which could be viewed as positive.

In contrast to benevolent sexism, hostile sexism is when negative attitudes are held towards a person based on their gender. For example, the belief that women are not cut out to be top executives.

Senior leaders, of which the vast majority are men, have the opportunity and responsibility to create a fair and equitable work environment. Among companies where men are actively involved in gender diversity, 96% report progress on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, according to BCG (Boston Consulting Group).

By comparison, only 30% report progress when men are not involved.

Our data shows that most men want to intervene and reduce sexism in the workplace, with 86% saying they are personally committed to interrupting sexist behaviours at work.

Yet, only 31% feel confident in their ability to do so. Even men who are very engaged in dismantling sexism in the workplace face cultural barriers. Their advocacy may be stifled if companies have a climate of silence or a very combative culture.

Another important factor stopping men taking a stand against gender bias is the fear of facing disapproval from other men. Nearly all of the men we surveyed (94%) say they experience ‘masculine anxiety’ in the workplace – i.e. anguish over not living up to society's rigid masculine standards – which can stop them from challenging sexist behaviours.

Role models can play a significant role in lessening male anxiety. Seeing a senior executive not tolerating sexism in the workplace is a significant nudge factor for other men.

At Aviva’s annual general meeting in May, CEO Amanda Blanc was the target of sexist heckling from the floor.

“Not the man for the job,” said one investor; should be “wearing trousers,” said another. This hectoring was meant to diminish and discredit Blanc as an unfit CEO because of her gender. Aviva’s chair, George Culmer, was quick to shut down the comments, saying he was "flabbergasted," and he did “not expect and would [not] want to hear [sexist comments] at any future AGM.”

What this incident demonstrates is that while gender stereotyping and gender bias is sadly alive and well in the corporate world, a senior voice speaking out against it sends a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated in an organisation.

Leaders and managers need to be held accountable to interrupt bias and support the advancement of women; not least because everyone benefits from more equitable policies.

Gender norms limit men too and when they are lessened, men can experience less pressure to be the financial provider, enjoy better mental and physical health, be more involved as parents and enjoy a better relationship, for instance.

The time has come to end all types of sexism, which can be perpetuated by all genders, including women, and to level the playing field for women.

A diverse workforce that feels included and a strong sense of belonging leads to improved business performance, increased employee engagement and greater innovation.

In 2022, it is not enough to simply pay lip service to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Senior leaders must ask themselves questions like: How can we recognise and stamp out sexism in all its forms in the workplace? How can we tackle biases head-on? Should we see DEI as a priority leadership and fairness challenge? Are we including and supporting men too, and all leaders, to build skills in inclusive leadership?

Every employee contributes to creating corporate cultures and while HR and policy making can facilitate this conversation, it is top leaders who must lead by example and inspire others to make  real change.

This is not a zero-sum game. As a man working in the DEI space, I feel we have an important role to play towards more equitable and inclusive workplaces that work for women and everyone.


Jose M. Romero is director of MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) and alumni learning and engagement at nonprofit Catalyst