A thought-provoking guest post by Sophie B.
Today someone on the internet asked me about 'benevolent sexism', and I was pleased by the opportunity to explain this concept with web links and studies to hand. I once tried to define it to a chivalrous acquaintance on a train, and by the time we reached our destination a guy near us had joined in and the rest of the men in our train car were quite openly eavesdropping. They all wanted to find out why I seemed so bizarrely against men being nice to me.
Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude towards women which puts them on a pedestal and praises their performance of traditionally feminine roles. It seems to contrast with hostile sexism ("fuck bitches!"), but the two go hand-in-hand as a sort of punishment/reward system to keep women in their place.
Benevolent sexism reinforces gender roles just as much as hostile sexism, just more insidiously. It can seem to both the men who practice it and women like a sweet attitude, especially if we're used to the "fuck bitches" approach, but if you look at what is behind it, you find an ideology that supports gender inequality. Saying "Women are so good at childcare, men could never do that so well!" is easier to swallow than "Women should just focus on childcare while the men work", but they're both in the end saying the same thing in different ways.
Most guys come at benevolent sexism with the best of intentions, because their point of reference is hostile sexism. Whenever I've talked to 'chivalrous' men about it, they ALWAYS ask me if I'd rather they stomped all over/disrespected women instead; I find it interesting that they see their only two options as benevolent and hostile sexism, and can't conceive of a non-sexist option.
Benevolent sexism is quite accepted by society, and seen as harmless, but it has documented detrimental effects on women. In the workplace it undermines women's confidence and performance, and informs their evaluation and treatment by men. It is one of the main contributors to the 'glass ceiling' effect. As one of the more subtle and socially acceptable forms of gender discrimination, it is definitely something to look out for.
The studies referenced in this Wikipedia article are a good place to start