New research provides evidence that benevolently sexist feedback can induce cardiovascular threat responses in women, even when the feedback is supportive. The findings have been published in the journal Biological Psychology.

Benevolent sexism refers to patronizing, paternalistic, and chivalrous beliefs about women. One example is the belief that women should be cherished and protected by men.

“I was interested in better understanding the potential mechanisms through which benevolent sexism can negatively impact women’s day-to-day well-being. Benevolent sexism can be challenging to study because perpetrators are often seen positively, while the women who oppose it are viewed as cold and uncaring,” said study author Veronica Lamarche (@v_lamarche), a lecturer and assistant Professor at the University of Essex.

“Many studies have relied on self-report and retrospective evaluations of interactions which can be susceptible to rumination or downplaying the experience. We were able to capture cardiovascular responses consistent with self-doubt immediately following supportive, yet benevolently sexist feedback, while they worked on another task.”

In the new study, the researchers collected cardiovascular data — such as heart rate and blood pressure — from 73 women as they completed a difficult verbal reasoning test.

The women were then told that their responses were being scored by the lead researcher, who would provide them with feedback. At this point, the participants were randomly assigned to either receive benevolently sexist feedback or regular feedback.

Women who received the sexist feedback were told by a male researcher: “You seem like a very smart girl because your answers showed a lot of creativity. I know it’s hard not to get emotional during this type of test, but I’m sure you’ll do well on the next set of questions as long as you don’t let your nerves get the best of you.”

In contrast, women who received the regular feedback were told: “You seem like a very smart person because your answers showed a lot of creativity. I know it’s hard to come up with answers during this type of test, but I’m sure you’ll do well on the next set of questions as long as you continue to think outside of the box.”

The participants then completed another round of the test, which was slightly less difficult than the first go-around.

The researchers found that women who received the sexist feedback tended to display lower cardiac output and higher total peripheral resistance, consistent with a cardiovascular threat response.

“These findings illustrate that the consequences of benevolent sexism can occur spontaneously, while women are engaged with a task, and even when the sexist feedback is intended as supportive,” Lamarche told PsyPost.

There was no difference in performance between women who had received benevolently sexist feedback on the practice test and women who had received regular feedback. But women who had received sexist feedback were more likely to report that they believed that they were not skilled at the test.

“One take-away from this study is that well-intentioned supportive feedback may backfire if it’s tinged with benevolent sexism. In our study, women who received supportive, yet benevolent sexist feedback showed cardiovascular responses consistent with self-doubt while they were working on a task similar to the one they had received the feedback on,” Lamarche said.

Like all research, the study includes some caveats.

“Our study is limited to receiving feedback from a male evaluator who is seen as an authority figure but who is also a relative stranger to the participants (e.g., a male professor at their university). However, benevolent sexist feedback can come from men and women, and from relative strangers as well as people who are well known,” Lamarche explained.

“Future research should explore how different relationships and perpetrators influence responses to benevolent sexist feedback. For example, is it more impactful when it comes from someone unexpected and do people slowly become desensitised, or less doubtful and more angry after hearing the same kinds of comments from the same people over and over again? These questions should be addressed to further understand the impact benevolent sexism can have on women.”

The study, “Clever girl: Benevolent sexism and cardiovascular threat“, was authored by Veronica M. Lamarche, Mark D. Seery, Cheryl L. Kondrak, Thomas L. Saltsman, and Lindsey Streamer.