• Francisca Expósito, M. Carmen Herrera, and Miguel Moya, Department of Social Psychology, Universidad de Granada, Spain; Peter Glick, Department of Psychology, Lawrence University.

  • This research was supported by Grant SEJ2007-65816/PSIC from the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science (Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia) and Exp. No. 064/07 from the Spanish Women Institute (Instituto de la Mujer) and by a grant from the F.P.I. (BES-2005-8715) program of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science (Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia) to the second author.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: M. Carmen Herrera, Departamento de Psicología Social, Universidad de Granada, Campus de Cartuja, Granada, 18071, Spain. E-mail:


We examined how Spanish women's benevolent sexism (a sex-role attitude) affects their perceptions of whether a hypothetical husband will feel threatened by a wife's success at work. In a social perception study, female participants (N = 210) read a vignette in which a husband and his wife argued over her job promotion. Women's benevolent sexism (but not hostile sexism) predicted viewing the husband as more threatened by his wife's promotion and more likely to aggress against her (intimate partner violence). The effect of women's benevolent sexism was robust and not mitigated when specific information about the husband's attitude (traditional, egalitarian, no information) was provided. Belief that a husband would feel threatened by a wife's promotion partially mediated the relationship between women's benevolent sexism scores and their anticipation that the husband would become violent. Benevolently sexist women may embrace traditional roles in relationships in part to avoid antagonizing male partners, ultimately maintaining the status quo.

Women's beliefs about sources of conflict in heterosexual relationships can affect their own ambitions and attitudes. For example, Rudman and Fairchild (2007) found that women who believe that feminism breeds conflict in heterosexual romantic relationships tend to avoid labeling themselves as feminists. The current study explores women's beliefs about whether a wife's success, which might challenge traditional role and status relations within a marriage, would cause a husband to feel threatened and, potentially, to aggress against her. This article focuses on how individual differences in ideology predict women's assumptions about a husband's reaction to his wife's success. Specifically, we consider the role of women's endorsement of benevolent sexism, an ideology suggesting that women receive men's protection and provision in exchange for embracing a traditional gender role (Glick & Fiske, 1996).

Glick and Fiske (1996, 2001) have argued that patriarchy is upheld by a set of ambivalent ideologies toward women, encompassing both benevolent sexism, which rewards women with paternalistic affection and protection for “staying in their place,” and hostile sexism, which punishes women who challenge traditional roles. Although women tend to reject hostile sexism, they often are more likely to endorse benevolent sexism—sometimes as much or more than men—presumably because benevolent sexism promises affection and provision in exchange for women's enactment of traditional roles (e.g., as wives and mothers).

Past research shows that some women cope with the perceived threat of violence from men by endorsing benevolent sexism, an ideology that extols the virtues of the traditional woman. Glick et al. (2004) found that, in nations where men exhibit more hostile sexism—an ideology that is threatening toward women—women more strongly endorse benevolent sexism, which promises protection for traditional women. Fischer (2006) followed up by showing a causal effect: When told that a national survey revealed that men's attitudes toward women were generally hostile (as opposed to favorable or a no-information control), American college women showed increased endorsement of benevolent (but not hostile) sexism. In other words, in the face of male threat, at least some women respond not by challenging traditional gender relations, but rather by reinforcing them through benevolent sexism, an ideology in which female compliance with traditional roles elicits male protection.

This past research suggests that women's endorsement of benevolent sexism may represent an attempt to resolve the psychological conflict between the potential threat from, and the desire for, intimacy with a male partner. Further, it implies that women who accept benevolent sexism may do so because they tend to view men in general as hostile toward independent, nontraditional women. Thus, the central hypothesis in the current research is that women who score higher in benevolent sexism will be more likely to view a hypothetical husband as threatened by a wife's success at work (which can be viewed as threatening traditional relationship roles) and thus more prone to aggress.

Moreover, we do not expect women's hostile sexist beliefs to play a role. Although women who score high in hostile sexism are more likely to personally disdain ambitious women (Glick & Fiske, 1996), the current study focuses on how women believe a husband would react, not on their own personal reactions or their reactions to other women. As noted above, women's benevolently (but not hostile) sexist beliefs uniquely respond to their perceptions of men's hostility to female independence (Fischer, 2006). Further, benevolent, in contrast to hostile, sexism focuses on women's roles within intimate heterosexual relationships. Past research has shown, for example, that women's acceptance of benevolent, but not of hostile, sexism predicts avoiding challenges to male partners by accepting gender-role restrictions (Moya, Glick, Expósito, De Lemus, & Hart, 2007).

The current study also explores whether women's benevolent sexism will influence attitudes toward a hypothetical husband regardless of whether he is said to have egalitarian or traditional gender-role attitudes. Research has shown that men who hold traditional gender-role attitudes are more likely to justify violence against female partners (Berkel, Vandiver, & Bahner, 2004; Ferrer Pérez, Bosch Fiol, Ramis Palmer, Torres Espinosa, & Navarro Guzmán, 2006; Willis, Hallinan, & Melby, 1996). And such men are especially likely to resort to violence when they perceive a threat to their dominance within a heterosexual relationship (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). Through observation, women may generally be aware of the relationship between a man's gender ideology and hostile reactions to anything that might diminish their dominance within a relationship.

We expect that female perceivers will generally believe that an explicitly traditional (as compared to egalitarian) husband will be more threatened by and aggressive toward a successful wife. More important, for the current study, is whether manipulating the husband's ideology will moderate, or fail to moderate, the effect of female perceivers' benevolent sexism.We have suggested that women who are high in benevolent sexism are more likely to assume that husbands are threatened by a wife's success, but would they do so even when the husband is explicitly said to hold egalitarian beliefs? Although it would not be surprising to find that such explicit information would reduce the effect of perceivers' benevolent sexism, women who are high in benevolent sexism may still assume that an allegedly egalitarian husband would be upset by his wife's success. Glick et al. (2004) showed that women who endorse benevolent sexism toward women are also likely to endorse hostility toward men by agreeing with items such as “Even men who claim to be sensitive to women's rights really want a traditional relationship at home, with the woman performing most of the housekeeping and child care” (Glick & Fiske, 1999, p. 536). Thus, benevolently sexist women may remain more likely to assume that even a self-professed egalitarian husband would react defensively to a wife's career success whereas women who do not accept benevolent sexism will think that only traditional men (not egalitarian men) will be likely to feel threatened and aggress.

To summarize, Hypothesis 1 for this study is that the more strongly female perceivers endorse benevolent sexism (but not hostile sexism), the more they will believe (a) that a husband will be threatened by a wife's career success and (b) that the husband will behave aggressively toward his wife. Hypothesis 2 predicts moderation of this effect by the husband's ideology such that traditional men will be perceived as likely to be threatened and to aggress regardless of women's attitudes. However, even when the man's ideology is expressly egalitarian, women scoring high in benevolent sexism will continue to expect threat and aggression unlike women scoring lower in benevolent sexism.

These two hypotheses refer to two separate dependent variables: belief that the husband will feel threatened and perceived likelihood that he will become violent. As noted above, we chose these two dependent variables because threat to male power is known to precipitate male violence, leading us to test whether benevolently sexist women are aware of this relationship and incorporate it into their lay theories of male partner aggression. Thus, if Hypothesis 1 is confirmed, we will explore whether the perceptions of how threatened the husband feels by his wife's promotion will mediate the effects of female perceivers' endorsement of benevolent sexism on their anticipated likelihood that the husband will become violent.



A total of 210 women participated in our study. Participants included 74 students and the 136 friends or relatives they solicited for participation. Student undergraduates in psychology courses at the Universidad de Granada in Spain were asked during class to complete a questionnaire about relations in marriage. They were also given an opportunity to recruit relatives and friends to complete the questionnaire to earn extra credit. Median participant age was 19 years (SD = 7.16, range 17 to 63). About half the sample (50.7%) had finished only secondary school, 41.1% had a college degree or were currently university students, and 8.2% had completed only a primary school education.


All participants agreed to answer an anonymous questionnaire. After providing demographic information (age and education), participants read a vignette that included the experimental manipulations and subsequently completed the dependent measures. Participants were informed that they would read a brief description about an interaction between a wife and husband, followed by questions about their perceptions of the couple. Particpants were told that there were no right or wrong answers, that we were interested in their own personal opinions, and that all answers were anonymous. Finally, all participants completed a manipulation check and the Spanish version of the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI; Expósito, Moya, & Glick, 1998; Glick & Fiske, 1996).

Design and Materials

Participants were randomly assigned to a condition based on a hypothetical husband's ideology: gender traditional, egalitarian, and a no-information control.1 The dependent variables assessed perceptions of how threatened the husband would feel as a result of his wife's promotion and the probability that he would become violent toward her.

Vignette All participants read the complete, verbatim description as follows: “It all happened at home in the living room. Antonio and Pilar were about to have dinner. As they usually do every evening, they talked about their day and typical issues couples talk about. At one point, Pilar said something to Antonio and they started to argue. The argument gradually became more heated; they raised their voices and shouted at each other. They even made threatening gestures toward each other … Pilar works in a bank; she has just been offered a promotion and she was telling her husband, who works in the same bank, about it.”

The husband's ideology variable was manipulated by providing participants with one of the following sets of information: (a) Traditional: “Antonio is quite traditional regarding the roles each member of the couple should play. He considers it is the husband's responsibility to bring home the money and take care of the family's finances, while the woman's place is at home looking after the home and the family”; (b) Egalitarian: “Antonio is a modern man regarding the roles each member of the couple should play. He thinks there should be equality in a marriage and that the husband and wife should participate equally in family decisions, as well as in taking care of the home and the children. Antonio believes times have changed and therefore both members of the couple should bring money home and jointly provide for the family's finances”; and (c) Control: No information was provided about the husband's ideology. Antonio and Pilar are two common and traditional names in Spain.

Dependent measures After reading the scenario, participants answered the two sets of questions listed below by indicating the probability of current or future events from 0 to 100%. The first set of four questions pertained to the perceived likelihood of male partner aggression: “How likely do you think it is that the vignette you just read will escalate into Antonio becoming violent against Pilar?”, “How likely do you think it is that Antonio uses physical violence in his family interactions?”, “How likely do you think it is that Antonio uses verbal or emotional violence in his family interactions?”, and “How likely do you think it is that Antonio uses physical force to reach his objectives?” (α= .91). The second set of two questions focused on the perceived likelihood that the male partner feels threatened by the promotion: “How likely do you think it is that Antonio's behavior is due to the fact that he considers Pilar's promotion as a threat to his authority in the family?” and “How likely do you think it is that Pilar's promotion is understood by Antonio as a loss of power in the relationship?” (r = .80). Finally, to check on the effectiveness of the husband's ideology manipulation, participants also responded to a single item: “To what extent do you think Antonio agrees with the idea that women should continue to be the only ones to take care of domestic tasks?” using a scale ranging from 1 (completely agree) to 7 (completely disagree).

Ambivalent sexism Participants answered the 22-item Spanish-language version of the ASI (Glick & Fiske, 1996). The Spanish ASI was developed through translation and back-translation by experts in Spanish and English; its validity and reliability have been well established in prior studies in Spain (Expósito et al., 1998; Glick et al., 2000, 2004). The ASI comprises two 11-item subscales that measure hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. All items are statements to which participants respond on a 0 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) scale. Sample hostile sexism items include: “Women are too easily offended,”“Feminists are seeking for women to have more power than men,” and “Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them.” Sample benevolent sexism items include: “No matter how accomplished he is, a man is not truly complete as a person unless he has the love of a woman,”“In a disaster, women ought to be rescued before men,” and “Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess.” Consistent with prior research, the hostile sexism (α= .86) and benevolent sexism (α= .86) scales were positively correlated (r = .54, p < .001). Means, standard deviations, and correlations for the ambivalent sexism subscales and dependent variables are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. 
Descriptive Statistics for and Correlations Among the Main Continuous Variables
 MeanSDBSCorrelations Perceived threatAggression
Hostile Sexism 1.57  .92.54 (p < .001).02 (p = .72) .06 (p = .36) 
Benevolent Sexism 1.98 1.05 .19 (p = .006).23 (p = .001)
Perceived threat to husband62.7125.80  .60 (p < .001)
Likelihood of aggression42.1822.19   


Manipulation Check

To check the effectiveness of the husband's ideology manipulation, we computed a one-way analysis of variance comparing the traditional, egalitarian, and control conditions for the single item measuring the husband's perceived endorsement of traditional roles. This analysis revealed a significant ideology effect, F(2, 207) = 54.58, p < .001, η= .34. As intended, the traditional husband was viewed as the most traditional (M = 5.77, SD = 1.64), whereas the egalitarian husband was viewed as least traditional (M = 3.06, SD = 1.69), and the no-information control fell in between (M = 4.95, SD = 1.32). Post hoc Tukey tests showed that all three means were significantly different (p < .001 for all).

If participants' ASI scores (which we considered a trait measure) were affected by the manipulation of the husband's ideology, this disruption would represent a potential alternative explanation. To make sure that this was not the case, we conducted a multivariate analysis of variance with the type of scale (hostile sexism, benevolent sexism) as the dependent variables and the husband's ideology manipulation as a between-subjects variable. The manipulation of the husband's ideology did not affect ASI scores, F(2, 207) = .92, p = .40, ruling out the possibility that the latter reflected a state measure that was affected by the manipulation of the husband's ideology.

Effects of Participants' Benevolent Sexism

To test the outcome of perceived threat for both our hypotheses, we conducted a multiple regression analysis to assess participants' perceived probability that the husband was threatened as a function of women's benevolent and hostile sexism scores and the husband's ideology. We created dummy variables to yield two contrasts for the husband ideology conditions: the first contrast (traditional = 1, egalitarian = 0, control = 0) compared the traditional versus control and egalitarian conditions; the second contrast (traditional = 0, egalitarian = 1, no-information = 0) compared the egalitarian versus control and traditional conditions. The two dummy variable contrast terms that tested the husband's ideology main effect and the centered benevolent sexism and hostile sexism scores were entered in Step 1, followed by the interactions between the contrasts and each of the ASI scales in Step 2. The three-way interaction among the variables was included in Step 3. Results of this regression analysis are presented in Table 2; the mean scores and standard deviations of the dependent variables are shown in Table 3.

Table 2. 
Predicting Perceived Likelihood That the Husband Feels Threatened
  1. Note. “Traditional ideology” represents a dummy-coded contrast com- paring the condition in which the husband endorses traditional roles to the no-information control and egalitarian conditions. “Egalitarian ideology” represents a dummy-coded contrast comparing the condition in which the husband endorses egalitarian roles versus the no-information control and traditional ideology conditions. HS = hostile sexism; BS = benevolent sexism.

Step 1    .20
    (p < .001)
Traditional ideology16.773.91.31.000 
Egalitarian ideology−8.363.95−.15.036 
Step 2    .024
HS × BS−3.011.82−.11.10  
HS × Trad ideol.−.975.35−.02.85  
HS × Egal ideol.6.445.47.13.24  
BS × Trad ideol.1.984.73.05.68  
BS × Egal ideol..614.35.01.89  
Step 3    .00
HS × BS × Trad ideol.−3.574.38−.09.41  
HS × BS × Egal ideol..  
Total    .23
Table 3. 
Means (and Standard Deviations) of Perceived Threat and Probability of Aggression Across the Three Experimental Conditions
 No informationTraditionalEgalitarian
  1. Note. Means with different subscripts differ at p < .05.

Perceived threat to husband60.34a76.64b50.75c
Perceived likelihood husband aggresses45.03ac50.53a30.34b

Confirming the threat component of Hypothesis 1, women's benevolent sexism scores significantly predicted perceiving the husband as more threatened by his wife's promotion, such that higher sexism scores were related to greater perceived threat. In contrast and as expected, women's hostile sexism scores were unrelated to projected threat. Participants also significantly perceived the husband as more threatened when (in comparison to the no-information control and the egalitarian conditions) he was described as holding attitudes endorsing traditional gender roles and less threatened when he was described as egalitarian. Failing to find support for Hypothesis 2, there was no significant interaction between women's attitudes and the husband's ideology.

Turning to women's perception of the husband's likelihood to aggress, we conducted the same type of multiple regression analysis with perceived likelihood of aggression as we performed above with perceived threat. This analysis also revealed two significant main effects, with no two-way or three-way interactions (see Table 4). First, consistent with Hypothesis 1, women's benevolent sexism scores significantly predicted a higher perceived probability that the husband would aggress against the wife. Also the husband's ideology exerted a main effect: Participants significantly perceived the husband as less likely to aggress when the husband was presented as egalitarian (as compared to no-information control and traditional conditions). The main effect of the husband's ideology when the gender-traditional husband was compared to no-information control and egalitarian husbands was not significant. None of the interaction effects approached significance, thus we again did not find support for Hypothesis 2.

Table 4. 
Predicting Perceived Likelihood of Husband Aggression
B  SEBBetapΔR2
  1. Note. “Traditional ideology” represents a dummy-coded contrast com- paring the condition in which the husband endorses traditional roles to the no-information control and egalitarian conditions. “Egalitarian ideology” represents a dummy-coded contrast comparing the condition in which the husband endorses egalitarian roles versus the no-information control and traditional ideology conditions. HS = hostile sexism; BS = benevolent sexism.

Step 1    .19
    (p < .001)
Traditional ideology5.653.39.12.098 
Egalitarian ideology−13.643.43−.29.000 
Step 2    .03
HS × BS−2.071.58−.09.19 
HS × Trad ideol.−4.464.64−.12.34 
HS × Egal ideol. 
BS × Trad ideol.1.434.11.04.73 
BS × Egal ideol.−1.423.78−.04.71 
Step 3    .00
HS × BS × Trad ideol. 
HS × BS × Egal ideol.−3.043.92−.08.44 
Total    .22

Threat as a Mediator

Confirming Hypothesis 1, benevolent sexism scores predicted the perceived threat to, as well as the perceived probability of aggression by, the hypothetical husband. To test whether the perceived threat mediated the effects of benevolent sexism on perceived aggression among female participants, we conducted a series of regression analyses. For these analyses, whenever benevolent sexism was used as a predictor, hostile sexism was also entered to control for the positive relationship between these scales. The mediational analysis is shown in Figure 1. Separate regressions revealed that participants' benevolent sexism scores (controlling for hostile sexism) significantly predicted perceived threat (the proposed mediator) and the husband's anticipated aggressiveness (the dependent variable). Similarly, perceived threat significantly predicted the husband's perceived likelihood of aggressing. Finally, when women's benevolent sexism scores and threat were simultaneously entered as predictors, the effect of perceived threat was virtually the same, whereas the effect of benevolent sexism on perceived aggression dropped, although it still remained significant (Sobel' statistic = 2.92, p = .003, showed that this partial mediation was significant). In sum, women's benevolent sexism scores predicted their perceptions that the husband was more likely to aggress, in part, because benevolent sexism predicted whether women viewed the husband as threatened by his wife's promotion.

Figure 1.

Effect of benevolent sexism on perceived husband aggression mediated by perceived threat. *p < .05. **p < .01.


Supporting our first hypothesis, women's higher endorsement of benevolent sexism predicted their tendency to think that a husband would both be threatened by and respond aggressively to his wife's success. Thus, the more women endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes, the more they tended to perceive the male ego as threatened when a female partner did not conform to her traditional role. However, our second hypothesis was not supported: For both perceived threat and aggression, there was no interaction between women's benevolent sexism and our manipulation of the husband's expressed ideology. Thus, even in the face of explicit information that the husband was relatively egalitarian, the more female perceivers endorsed benevolent sexism, the more likely they were to view the husband as threatened by his wife's success.

Although our second hypothesis was not confirmed, our findings revealed that women, regardless of their gender-role attitudes, assume that gender-traditional men will be more threatened and more likely to aggress against a female partner whose success threatens traditional power structures and roles within the relationship. The overall tenor of these results is not surprising in light of findings that men who endorse sexist or gender-traditional attitudes are indeed more likely to commit relationship violence (Johnson, 1995; White, 2001; White & Kowalski, 1998), especially when women neglect their traditional obligations as housewives and mothers (Viki & Abrams, 2002).

The current study shows that benevolently sexist women view female ambition as threatening to, and more likely to elicit aggression by, male partners. Past research shows that women who endorse benevolent sexism are willing to trade off independent ambitions in exchange for a male partner's affection, protection, and provision. For example, Moya and colleagues (2007, Study 2) found that women's benevolent sexism scores predicted more positive reactions to a boyfriend's apparent attempt to get them to give up a chance at an attractive internship opportunity. The current study and Moya et al. (2007) represent preliminary evidence that women's acceptance of benevolent sexism may lead them to restrict their ambitions to avoid conflict with male romantic partners.

This proposed dynamic fits with prior contentions about the insidious relationship of women's acceptance of benevolent sexism and perceived threat from men. Glick et al. (2004) suggested that some women endorse benevolent sexism as a way to counter perceived male threat. Rather than seeking equality and nontraditional roles, which might evoke hostility, benevolently sexist women embrace traditional roles to solicit men's protection. The present study shows that women who endorse benevolent sexism (i.e., traditional ideals about a woman's role) are more prone to believe that men are easily threatened by nontraditional women. Women who endorse benevolent sexism to counter male threat may therefore end up appeasing men at the cost of their own power, independence, and status both within and outside of the relationship (e.g., by being more traditional within the relationship and by not investing as much in careers; see Rudman & Fairchild, 2007).

There are a number of cautions to bear in mind about our research. Our study examined women's lay theories about when men become aggressive in relationships, not the actual factors that lead to such aggression. We have suggested that beliefs about when men will react defensively and aggressively toward female partners are important because such beliefs, in turn, may affect women's behavior in ways that reinforce inequality, for example, by leading them to behave more traditionally and less powerfully lest they offend male partners. The current study, although it shows that women's endorsement of benevolent sexism does indeed predict viewing male partners as more easily threatened and, consequently, potentially more aggressive, did not take the next step—showing whether a heightened belief that men are threatened by nontraditional women actually leads women to act in more traditional ways to appease men. This exploration remains a task for future studies.

Additionally, in the current study, the argument depicted in the scenario always concerned a potential threat to traditional roles and male power in the relationship due to the wife's work success. There was no control condition in which conflict occurred for a more gender-neutral topic (e.g., about whether to take a vacation together). Thus, we cannot conclude that women's benevolent sexism specifically predicts viewing men as being more violent in response to gender-role conflict as opposed to simply viewing male partners as more likely to be violent in response to any conflict. Future research should explore whether our results are particular to conflicts about traditional marital roles or extend to a more general perception of male threat.

Another limitation is that the current study was carried out in a Spanish context and ought to be replicated in other cultures. Nevertheless, there are at least some reasons why our results arguably are generalizable. First, past research showing that men who are gender traditional are more likely to justify relationship violence has been replicated in a number of cultures (Berkel et al., 2004; Glick, Sakalli-Ugurlu, Ferreira, & Aguiar de Souza, 2002; Valor-Segura, Expósito, & Moya, 2008). This fact, which people may observe in daily life, may be responsible for the general perception among our participants that sexist ideology promotes male aggression toward women. Second, there is considerable evidence for the cross-cultural generalizability of ambivalent sexism effects; indeed, the notion that women turn to benevolent sexism as a defense against perceived threat by men grew out of cross-cultural comparisons in two large cross-national studies involving 25 nations (Glick et al., 2000; Glick et al., 2004). Thus, the finding that women who endorse benevolent sexism more strongly believe that men will react negatively to female partners who threaten a relationship's traditional roles and power structure has a reasonable likelihood of generalizing across cultures.

In conclusion, how women view the causes of male violence in relationships matters. If women are convinced that men react aggressively toward female partners who do not uphold traditional roles, some may choose to sacrifice equality for relationship security. The current study is consistent with past research (Fischer, 2006), which suggests that women accept benevolent sexism to counteract perceived male threat. The central irony is that such women seek protection from men, usually in close relationships, and yet it is precisely these women who most fear that, should they stray from their traditional role within the relationship, their protector might easily become an aggressor.


  • 1

    We had also attempted to manipulate the salience of different potential consequences of the promotion by including information that either emphasized the threat to the man's status and power (noting that the woman would be making more money than he and have increased personal resources) versus threat to his role within the marriage (noting that the woman would have less time to carry out traditional female duties, such as the laundry and child care, requiring him to carry more of this load). Because manipulation checks revealed no significant effects due to this manipulation, we do not include this factor in the analyses presented here.