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Ambivalent sexism is a theoretical framework which posits that sexism has two sub-components: "hostile sexism" (HS) and "benevolent sexism" (BS). Hostile sexism reflects overtly negative evaluations and stereotypes about a gender. Benevolent sexism represents evaluations of gender that may appear subjectively positive, but are actually damaging to people and gender equality more broadly. For the most part, psychologists have studied hostile forms of sexism. However, theorists using the theoretical framework of ambivalent sexism have found extensive empirical evidence for both varieties. The theory has largely been developed by social psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske.

Ambivalent sexism offers a multidimensional reconceptualization of the traditional view of sexism to include both subjectively benevolent and hostile attitudes toward women. The word "ambivalent" is used to describe the construal of sexism because this type of bias includes both negative and positive evaluations of women. The addition of a benevolent feature to definitions of gender-based prejudice was a major contribution to the study of sexism and field of psychology. Traditional conceptualizations of sexism focused almost entirely on overt hostility toward women. While historians, anthropologists, feminist scholars, and psychologists had previously suggested that sexism involves positive and negative evaluations of women, the majority of empirical research at the time evaluated only hostile expressions of sexism. The introduction of the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI) a scale which was developed by Glick and Fiske in 1996, and which assesses ambivalently sexist attitudes marks a shift in how sexism is construed and scientifically measured. Glick and Fiske created the ASI to address a proposed deficiency in the measurement of sexism at the time. They argue that previous scales assessing sexism do not adequately capture the ambivalent nature of gender-based prejudice toward women.

Both benevolent and hostile sexism are considered legitimizing ideologies, in that these attitudes provide the justification for social inequalities between men and women. Social dominance orientation asserts that group-based inequalities are systematically reinforced by the disadvantaged group's adoption of the dominant group's ideology and social stratification. Empirical research has consistently supported the validity of Social Dominance Theory, failed verification] and the SDO model of structural oppression may be particularly apt to describe how patriarchy is perpetuated. Researchers have explored reasons for why women might internalize ambivalently sexist attitudes towards women. Fischer (2006) found that women may develop benevolently sexist attitudes as a response to experiencing sexism themselves. Cross-cultural research suggests that women's endorsement of benevolent sexism often reflects a culture of extreme hostile sexism among men in a given community. Some researchers argue that, in cultures that are particularly hostile, women may internalize benevolent sexism as a protective mechanism.

Some research indicates that women perceived men high in benevolent sexism to possess positive attitudes towards women, while by contrast men low in benevolent sexism were perceived to be misogynistic and possessing high levels of hostile sexism, when in reality men who reject benevolent sexism also tend to reject hostile sexism. If the man stated that his rejection of benevolent sexism was motivated by egalitarian values then the perception that he was a hostile sexist was somewhat mitigated, though not entirely.

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