In a world where feminism is as avowed by popstars and models as it is by your favourite lesbian college professor, it can be puzzling to meet everyday women who don't back the gender equality movement. But they're definitely out there, and they're usually that girl from highschool who you've remained Facebook friends with masochistically.
New research, published in the Australian Journal of Psychology, can now help us understand why she feels so apathetic about that whole patriarchy thing.
The Australian-New Zealand study claims that some women feel supported by the patriarchy, rather than restricted by it. Hence their reluctance to challenge the status quo.
The researchers, who surveyed 10,485 New Zealand women and 269 American women, found that although many of the women displayed surprisingly misogynistic tendencies, they were prone to "benevolent" rather than "hostile" sexism. These terms, used by academics since the 1990s, distinguish between sexists who display overt and sometimes violent prejudice towards women (hostile), and those who believe women should be respected but protected by men (benevolent).
We've known for some time that women are just as likely as men to fall into the latter category, but until now few researchers have spelled it out: misogynistic women adopt sexist attitudes because life's easier that way.
"We wanted to know why these women internalise this form of sexism," Helen Radke, the study's lead author, told VICE. "One possible explanation for why women endorse an ideology that obligates men to cherish and protect them—i.e. benevolent sexism—is because they believe that the social hierarchy is natural and good.
"They endorse what we call a 'social dominance orientation' and perceive that women's lower-status position in the social hierarchy is legitimate."
Benevolent sexists, regardless of their own gender, don't hate women—they just don't view them as equal to men. And to live in a benevolently sexist society can be kind of cushy for someone happy enough to sacrifice a fair portion of her autonomy. The "type" of woman that Radke and her team identified literally prefer society to operate hierarchically. Simply put, she is comfortable viewing men as her protector, and, in many ways, she benefits from doing so.
The extent to which women believe that a social hierarchy is natural and good strongly correlates with the extent to which they endorse benevolent sexism. Women who support the existence of patriarchy see their own low-status place within it as legitimate, because they have been taught to think they are in personal need of protection from men since birth. Look around—hierarchies and power rankings, gendered or not, exist everywhere. They're so ubiquitous that they feel natural.
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The real-life implications of women adopting benevolent sexism because they understand it as the natural way of things are obvious. "If women orient towards the world in a socially dominant way, they might be less likely to pursue a career because they perceive that women have a lower-status position in society and that this is legitimate," says Radke.
"They therefore might not think that they should or have the ability to pursue a career to become independent and provide for themselves. As a result, they may perceive that their only option is to turn to the men for protection and financial security, which prompts them to adopt a worldview where men are obligated to cherish and protect women." A vicious cycle all women are familiar with.
When it comes to women's misogyny, the "social dominance orientation" Radke and her team identified is just one of many contributing factors. Other research has found that women adopt benevolent sexism because it affords them protection from more hostile forms of sexism and its detrimental consequences—think domestic violence and sexual assault.
But this new study is important because it helps us understand why so many women are unwilling to fight for greater gender equality in a way that could affect how feminists approach activism in the future. If we know why so many women are unwilling to march in rallies or listen to the concerns of their colleagues who experience disadvantage in the workplace, we could change their minds.
Still, Radke cautions that—however tempting it may be—there's no use tackling this issue by blaming women for their volunteered subservience. "This research can definitely be used to understand why gender inequality exists and persists, as well as what we can do about it," she says. "But I don't think the answer is to encourage women to break out of a social dominance framework and change their worldview."
Rather, Radke's research encourages the feminist movement to zoom out and understand how society operates in order to modify it. "We need to change how the world treats women so they aren't limited to perceiving that the social hierarchy is natural and good, believing that their lower-status position is legitimate, and therefore thinking that their only option for negotiating the sexist world in which they live is to turn to men for protection from that sexist world," says Radke.
To put it another way, the Serena Joys in your life may be more afraid to speak up than they appear. "We think that the reason why they believe the social hierarchy is natural and good in the first place is because they find themselves in sexist environments which would severely punish women for challenging men's dominance over women," Radke says.
Yet another reminder to cut those frustrating high school friends some slack and start directing your feminist efforts elsewhere.
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