A few months ago, I wrote a column about a situation I’ve experienced and witnessed more than I’d care for: being the only woman participating in a meeting or project—and thus being expected to become the team’s default administrative assistant. This piece struck a chord with readers of both genders, and many shared experiences that, although not directly related to administrative tasks, fell into the category of ambivalent or benevolent sexism.
Even if you’re not familiar with these terms, you’ve most likely witnessed them firsthand. Ambivalent or benevolent sexism refers to attitudes that view women and men in stereotypical roles, but feel “positive” or even complimentary in nature. Ambivalent or benevolent sexism usually originates in an idealization of traditional gender roles: Women are “naturally” more kind, emotional, and compassionate, while men are “naturally” more rational, less emotional, and “tougher,” mentally and physically. Translated into the workplace, ambivalent or benevolent sexism is behind the assumption that women are naturally better administrative assistants or naturally prepared to organize buying a gift for the boss. Because they’re “better” at it.