Protective Paternalism And Its Effect On Women’s Careers

The word “sexism” immediately raises association with gender discrimination, harassment in the work place and on the streets. However, it may not refer to these instances all the time.

In his book Todai: Gods and Humans in the Japanese Empire, Robert Cutts cites the experience of Naoko Abe, the first woman to join the elite career editorial staff of Mainichi Shimbum, one of Japan’s largest newspapers. Naoko Abe is quite the accomplished woman – she was also the first woman assigned to the Kyoto Bureau and the financial section of the newspaper.

Years later, the author asks Naoko Abe about what she envisions to be the next rung in her career, maybe a high visibility career building position overseas in Bosnia perhaps. Her response: “Never. They just recently told me that they are just not ready to send a woman to a place like that. I don’t think they would send me to [any] third world country, for example.”

Would you classify this as sexism? If you prevent your spouse or daughter from walking home late at night would it be classified as sexism? In fact, both fall under the purview of the study of sexism called protective paternalism.

Protective Paternalism – What is it?

Protective paternalism, according to a theory by Glick and Fiske (1996, 2001), is the notion that women need to be protected; it stems from the paternalistic ideology that men should serve as protectors and providers for women because of their greater authority, power and physical strength.

Protective paternalism is categorised under what is called benevolent sexism. Why this falls under the purview of sexism is because it is a reaction to viewing women stereotypically as the weaker sex needing protection. It is a response to the traditional stereotyping that man is the provider and woman his dependant. Unfortunately this has many negative implications in a business setting.

Its Effect on a Woman’s Career 

Although protective paternalism is certainly not the classic prejudice where men view women as inferior and incompetent, it still has far reaching negative effects on women. This attitude actually results in restricting the career role of women in different ways. Here’s how:

1. Career choice:

Women are often sidelined when it comes to jobs that are considered dangerous because of the view that they need to be protected. Protective paternalism also affects a woman’s attitude towards a certain career path. In a study exploring the effect of protective paternalism on women, a group of women were asked how they would react if their romantic partners did not like their participation in a job that counsels criminals. Most women said that they would react positively to the justification of “I am concerned for your safety.” This showed that protective paternalism causes most women to accept restrictions on their career choice.

2. Growth:

As seen in the case of Naoko Abe, the ingrained instinct in the predominantly male management is to protect women from the perceived danger in third world countries. This definitely restricts growth and opportunities in an organisation. In addition, the mentality that women who aspire to reach higher positions in their career are neglecting their traditional roles as caregivers and homemakers, often leads to a lower evaluation, which in turn affects promotions and growth.

3. Salary:

A premise of protective paternalism is that man is the breadwinner and a woman’s salary is only a supplement to his income. This leads to one of the most common stereotypes: “women don’t need equal pay because they are married.” This is justified under the excuse of women choosing to take time off to raise children etc., but the discrimination exists nonetheless. Though there are voices and protocols raised against this, unequal pay still exists.

4. Career Competition or Sacrifice:

The traditional thought is that income and status is the prerogative of men, which affects a man’s attitude toward his spouse’s career development.  Therein arises the norm that a wife is expected to support her husband’s job even at the cost of her own job; this generally doesn’t apply the other way round.

Although protective paternalism has definite negative effects, various studies indicate a mixed reaction from women. Though it is viewed much more positively when coming from a romantic partner as proof that he cares about her safety, a restriction from a male co-worker was viewed as proof of discrimination and sexism.

What is your take on it?


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