The Nature of Ambient Sexism

V. E. Parker, Ed.S., CAE

Refrigerator Mothers

It all began while researching the historical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Upon studying the research material that I had gathered to produce a working bibliography, the term “refrigerator mother came to my attention. According to Dunn and Woflberg (2014), Bruno Bettelheim propagated the term refrigerator mother to denote a mother that is emotionally detached and instinctively cold towards their child at birth which in turn propagates Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Ambient Sexism

Fortunately, society is in the age of the internet with a computer in virtually every home enabling the average lay-person to employ research skills that will bring them to the conclusion that ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and not the result of a generalized social bias.  Still, the refrigerator mother designation continued to haunt me to the extent that further investigation led me to uncover an epistemological phenomenon in the form of Ambient Sexism.  

In theory, ambient sexism distinguishes sexism into two dimensions: hostile and benevolent, noting that sexism is the aggressive outcome associated with protective paternalism (McMahon & Kahn, 2016). In the case of gender, women are, therefore, placed in a predefined passive role in society as a result of patriarchal aggression. Deviation from a particular preset social position becomes a threat that results in a hostel or benevolent interaction.

General Behavior

Socially, benevolent sexism behavior is characterized in the manner of males interacting with females on a predefined pedestal indicative of a specific gender role. For example, a recent study of women managers revealed that 80 percent of social conversation with male colleagues centered on plans to get married, having children, and compliments on personal appearance versus constructive acknowledgment or criticism in the manner of professional managerial techniques.

In contrast, women who, in the opinion of the ambivalent sexist, reject traditional-prescribed gender roles are coded as bein career orientated or feminist and become subject to hustle sexism through the course of labeling (combative, misanthropist, lesbian). Glick and Fiskes (1996) in their ambivalent sexism inventory that the majority of working women will reject hostel sexism while subsequently endorsing benevolent sexism due to it being a social dynamic. Unfortunately, when it comes to the norms of motherhood, hustle sexism remains persistent due to the prevailing attitude that because women possess the placenta, a neurodevelopmental disorder in the manner of Autism Spectrum Disorder during gestation is naturally the mother’s fault.  

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