‘Benevolent sexism’ a norm among young women in Kerala, reveals survey

Majority of women in Kerala are proud to be addressed by the name of a male member, either father or husband, says study

Kerala women
The predominant ideology even among young women in Kerala is patriarchal, says study. Representational image

Benevolent sexism —  a type of ambivalent sexism, where women are treated with affectionate but patronizing attitudes — has become a norm rather than an exception among young women in Kerala, according to a study conducted by a research collective at Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram.

The study confirms the concern raised by scholars that the quantitatively better position of women in Kerala society does not get reflected in their engagements in private and public spaces. The predominant ideology, even among young women, is patriarchal. For example, the majority of the samples in the study still think that they would be proud to be addressed/known by the name of a male member (either father or husband).

A higher rating of father and husband could be probably due to their role as ‘breadwinners’ and their wider engagement in the public sphere. The study, titled ‘Experience and Perspectives on Gender Roles: A Survey Among Young Women in Kerala’, was aimed at understanding the experiences and perspectives of young women in Kerala regarding gender roles and benevolent sexism.

Hostile sexism and benevolent sexism


According to the researchers, of the two classifications of sexist attitudes, hostile sexism is much more openly misogynistic. It perceives equality of genders as an assault on masculinity or traditional values and seeks to suppress and insult any move for gaining fairness across genders. On the other hand, benevolent sexism is thought of as a set of attitudes and beliefs about women as fair, innocent, caring, pure, and fragile.

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“The idea of the study popped up during a discussion on benevolent sexism at the Government College for Women’s debate club. The original idea was to undertake a survey among the students of the College which later on became probably one of the largest studies ever undertaken in the region on the subject,” say the authors of the study.

The data collection across the state spanned six months with a total sample of 2,6065. Though the survey specified in its title and description that it was meant exclusively for women among the selective age groups, 168 males responded and they were excluded from analysis. Meanwhile, four transgender persons responded and they were included and the final samples included is 2,5897.

Dominant partners, breadwinners and surnames: Some interesting findings

  • A wide majority (88%) felt that equal partnership is observed in successful marital relationships and it does entail either of the partners to be dominant. Still, more than 2300 samples (9%) chose ‘husband as dominant partner’ while an insignificant number (0.8%) observed ‘wife as the dominant partner’ in successful marriages.
  • Just over 29 per cent cases said that since their husbands make enough for the family, so they did not need to work whereas 60.3 per cent disagreed.
  • Among the samples, 95.1 per cent said that breadwinning should be a joint effort (2,4632) while 4.3 per cent considered the husband to be the breadwinner (1,123) and only 0.1 per cent said that it should be the wife.
  • Regarding the surname, the respondents were proud of 37.6 per cent (9,738) chose father, 27.7 per cent (7,186) chose husband, 26.7 per cent (6,925) chose their own name, 3.4 per cent (873) chose family name and only 1.9 per cent (489) chose mother’s name.

How to behave on social media

  • About 61.7 per cent young women reported receiving advice on sharing their male relative’s phone number, rather than their own, on social media or for other purposes while 32.3 percent did not.
  • About 71.4 per cent young women replied that they had received advice to avoid their portrait in social media while 26.8 per cent (6942) had no such experiences.
  • On the experience of being restricted from interacting with male strangers, about 57.5 percent had no such experience, while 39.4 per cent experienced it at many points in their life.
  • In 51.3 per cent of cases, the respondents were offered unwarranted escort by men for travelling distances during some points in their life while 43.6 per cent had no such offers.

Character, dressing style and intimacy

  • Overall, 64 per cent reported that they were being judged about their character based on their dressing style, while 7.7 per cent had not experienced it (7166)
  • More than 48 per cent of the young women felt that their male partner expected the female partners to please them through physical intimacy while 45.6 per cent had not reported such an experience
  • In 38 per cent of instances, the footing bills in a restaurant when they were with their male partner was done by the latter while 44.8 per cent (11609) reported that whoever had money had paid while 9.8 per cent (2525) said that they had paid jointly.

Researchers Parvati R (a post-graduate student in Archaeology), Megha B (who works with the non-profit organisation ‘Make a difference’) and Swetha Murali (who is an assistant professor with Carmel college Mala) co-wrote the report with Godwin S K, an associate professor of the Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram. The report has been brought out with the help of the department of Women and Child Development Department, Kerala.

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“I believe that this study can contribute to the ongoing efforts to promote gender equality and women empowerment in the state. The findings of this research can help policymakers and practitioners to design and implement effective programs and policies that address the root causes of gender inequality and promote gender-sensitive social norms,” said Priyanka G, director of Women and Child Development Department, Kerala, in the introduction of the study.

Youth survey

According to the researchers who conducted the study, sampling all districts in the state were ranked based on the number of youth in the age group 19-39 based on the 2011 Census, and efforts were made to gather more samples from the districts having higher presence of women in the above age group and there exists adequate representation from Malappuram, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Palakkad, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kannur, Kollam, Alappuzha, Kasaragod, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Idukki and Wayanad.

“In order to make the online survey stand the test of objectivity, samples have been collected using multiple methods. All local self-governments were shared the online form and we requested them to share it among all members of the council and with ASHA workers, Kudumbasree workers, Anganawadi workers, and other self-help groups,” claim the authors of the report.