Ladies first. Chivalry in the 21st century

by | Aug 6, 2019

Is there a place for chivalry in the 21st century?

Is chivalry in the 21st century an outdated idea that keeps women in a lower position, or does it still have its place in a civilised society?

“Ladies first” has long been a mantra in many situations. It has been used for passing through a door, standing up for women on trains, and ladies being served first in restaurants. But how relevant are acts of chivalry in the 21st century? Depending on your position, chivalry can be perceived as a polite, kindly gesture. But it is also seen as part of a pattern of benevolent sexism. This is based on the inherent idea that women are weaker so they need taking care of and to be protected. Chivalry, in its most basic form, is about protection of the species. It's all down to the maths. One man, in theory, can create an unlimited number of pregnancies in a year. Women can only create one. Therefore more women need protecting than men. Children are of course vital to perpetuate the human race.

As with all socially constructed behaviour, chivalry/benevolent sexism impacts both men and women positively and negatively. It can be a double bind for both. In some ways, chivalry iimplies that women are precious, helpless and need looking after. As a result, it suggests to men that they have some special tasks we expect them to carry out. This is regardless of whether the woman has asked for it, or even needs the service. It also calls on men to do something they may not even want to do, or could resent doing.

chivalry in the 21st century

I’ve had numerous conversations on this topic, especially with younger men, who say it’s very confusing.

The intention of kindness and chivalry

It also touches on intention. Inherent chivalry can mean that a man may do something kind for a woman, because he’s just doing what’s expected of him, rather than with authentic intention. A man very "kindly" held open a door for me but then let go before I was through and almost concussed me.

The notion of chivalry also ascribes the role of “helper” to men. This is despite the fact that they in turn may need help, or may just not want to give it. Duncan who stands at 1m 92 in his socks, complained that when he was a student his parents asked him to act as a body guard to his older sister and her friends when they went out on the town partying. He objected to this task  for all sorts of reasons. "Women should be able to go out for an evening without “protection” in the first place. Assigning a group of women, a “minder”,  just re-enforces the idea that other men will make unwanted moves on them and another alpha looking guy will keep watch. It’s almost primitive. It would also have been me who would have gotten my ass kicked. Or worse.”

Chivalry should be a big deal. It should be about respectful behaviour and kindness for everyone, from everyone. For women, superficial gestures around door opening and dinner serving priorities are there because we are kept in a lower place in the social hierarchy. We are paid less and face greater barriers to progression in almost every profession. For men to show deference to a woman because of her gender, regardless of the type of person she is, must be frustrating for men. I get that. But treating a woman with respect as a person can also be quite different to showing respect for women.

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The paradox of chivalry in 21st century

Studies show that small gestures of every day benevolent sexism undermine women in the workplace. Benôit Dardenne, Head of Social Psychology, and Marie Sarlet, Dr.of Social Psychology at the University Liège, studied precisely the mechanics of so called "benevolent sexism”  (see "Libérez votre entreprise du Sexism"  published by JUMP). They looked at the impact of benevolent sexism on the psyche of women by conducting cognitive experiments using MRI.

    • 93% of women said it can change their behaviour.
    • 93% said that it has an impact on their self-confidence.
    • 92% said it had a negative impact on the quality of their work.

Yet ironically, research from the University of Kent (2018) called Benevolent Sexism and Mate Preferences: Why Do Women Prefer Benevolent Men Despite Recognizing That They Can Be Undermining?” discovered a paradox. The study extended the understanding of women’s motives for endorsing benevolent sexism in their personal relationships. They discovered that women show a preference for male behaviour characterised by their willingness to “invest (protect, provide, and commit).”  They suggest that women prefer male partners who exhibit benevolent sexism “despite having awareness of the harmful consequences.”  

So where does that leave us? I would suggest that women want to see that men invest and nurture a personal relationship. They don't want to view it as a transactional approach. However in the workplace we should treat everyone with courtesy and respect regardless of gender.

Small actions can undermine women in a big way, even though it's usually unintentional. Combat this in the workplace with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops. 

If you feel passionate about gender balance and topical issues impacting women in the workplace 3Plus would be delighted to publish your work. Don't wait - send it in

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