Women who support a "sexist social system that disadvantages them" could do so because they believe their "low status" in the gender hierarchy is "fair", a study has found.
The study, published on Monday in the Australian Journal of Psychology, involved more than 6,000 women in New Zealand and the United States and examined social attitudes including whether participants believed the gender hierarchy was fair, and if they felt a personal need for protection from men.
"What could drive women to act ostensibly against the interest of their own group?" was the question at the centre of the research, one of the study's authors Dr Fiona Barlow, told BuzzFeed News.
Sexism manifested in two complementary ways, Barlow, of the University of Queensland, said.
An overt prejudice aimed at women who embodied non-traditional gender roles was called "hostile" sexism, while "benevolent" sexism was when a participant held a generally positive view of women but saw their own low-status in the gender hierarchy as "fair".
"Hostile sexism targets women who violate norms like career women, while benevolent sexism is this idea that women should be revered and cherished because they possess this quality of purity and chasteness which men don't," Barlow said.
"It elevates women in certain strict gender roles and gives women special rights provided that they adhere to these restrictive roles and are "good women", and also obligates men to care for them.
“This helps to explain how some women can support, or even fight for, limitations on what women are allowed to do — just like Serena Joy does in The Handmaid’s Tale."
Joy's character "colluded in the oppression of women" in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel," Barlow said.
"There were parallels with the research as [Joy] is instrumental in legislating that women are not allowed to read or do things without the men in their life, and that men have an all-powerful position."
Generally, Barlow said, people could be divided into whether they thought society was fair when all groups were treated equally; or whether they thought "the world naturally ordered itself into hierarchies, and that is fair because some groups are better than other groups, so it is okay if some groups step on other groups to get ahead".
"Women who generally think hierarchies are good and fair tend to accept their own group's lower status because all hierarchies are good even in one where they are personally disadvantaged."
The study showed there was a "small association" between age and socioeconomic status and the likelihood of displaying sexism.
"Older women and women who have more access to more resources may display a little more benevolent sexism," she said.
Barlow said more research was needed into why this attitude exists.
“These kinds of beliefs may be contributing to discrimination in the workplace and preventing women from participating in collective action for greater gender equality."
Gina Rushton is a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Gina Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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