Isn’t paternalism a good thing?

Paternalism. Isn’t that what you do if you are a father? Well, not exactly. To have fatherly or “paternal” feelings towards someone is, at its root, kind and loving: it implies interest in the well-being and development of children and it can be seen in the pride and delight of children’s accomplishments.

Paternalism, on the other hand, is the idea that as a superior, smarter and stronger being, you have the right to make decisions for and control others because you know what is best for them. A paternalistic attitude considers others as:

  • Weak
  • Unable to act independently
  • Needing the wisdom and corrective edification of their superiors
  • Less valuable than their superiors
  • Unworthy of inclusion in decision making
  • “Best seen and not heard”

In short, paternalism is the attitude many adults have held towards children for most of recorded human history, but it extends to people of lower social classes, different races, different cultures, languages, professions, and job descriptions. In other words, if others are different from you and you can box them up in a category that you deem inferior to your own, you become “justified” in treating these people as less intelligent, less able, or less worthy than yourself.

Paternalism is not healthy because it allows one person to self-impose power over another or even over a whole group who is perceived to be weak or inferior. Most often paternalism gets in the way of self-realization and independence, equal opportunities and advancements and it is most often directed towards women in the form of sexism, but it can just as easily be directed towards any group.

The outcomes of paternalism

If you live in the west you may think paternalism is dead and that opportunities for women and men to live and work in an equitable society are more or less realized. As can be seen in recent events regarding popular CBC radio hosts participating in violent acts towards women[1], the dismal numbers of women in politics[2]and corporate decision-making positions[3], the continuing rise of violence against women[4] and the overwhelming number of women living in poverty[5], this is unfortunately not the case. For men, the spiraling numbers of suicide[6], depression, [7]heart disease[8] and failed relationships[9] would indicate that they are not faring much better. We all make the mistake of thinking that changes to laws and policies are the real actions required for a just society and that as good people who believe in equality we personally have nothing left to do.

In reality, changes to gender, which are social expectations of men and women rather than their biological differences, are very slow to make take root, mainly because they are so deeply ingrained and unconscious. The ways people of different genders interact are considered as “normal” and even implied changes feel like threats to the very foundation of society.

Paternalism relates to sexism in that stereotyped attitudes that are either negative or positive about women stem out of the idea that women are inferior and weaker than men and need to be protected from other men, society and themselves. Both women and men can hold paternalistic attitudes towards women, and any culture, race or religion can have paternalistic attitudes about others who are outside their culture, race or religion. A more complete explanation of how paternalism and sexism are related can be found under the term “ambivalent sexism.”

My experiences with paternalism

As an intelligent, capable women I am frequently the recipient of remarks, behaviours and deliberate roadblocks to success from both women and men who for a number of reasons can’t bear the presence of an accomplished, confident and public woman. When I was working in education, my first principal regularly asked me when I came to his office if I was going to take my clothes off. He said he thought I needed to be, “knocked down a few pegs in case I get too good.”

My second principal told me I should not pursue graduate work because “women can’t write” and “my husband’s needs would be neglected.” He frequently made comments about my “nice ass.”

In the academic world I was dismissed and ignored by male professors, publicly humiliated by men in my doctoral cohort and, on several occasions, sexually harassed by supervisors. None of these men, or the women who supported or tolerated their actions towards me, were consciously acting in a manner they would describe as “sexist.” They were usually friendly and smiling as they handed down their insults because they truly believed they were “acting in my best interests.” Whether or not they would name it in those terms, they were showing paternalism.

As my career trajectory took me into business, and included seeking contracts from decision makers and investments for new product development, I became acutely aware of the things I needed to do to satisfy gender expectations for both men and women before they would trust me with a contract or an investment. Negotiating a contract is a delicate dance between looking and sounding feminine while proving my expertise in a way the men in the room don’t feel threatened and the women don’t accuse me of being “over confident.”

At most business and tech meetings I am one of few or the only woman, and I have to work very hard to be heard and to have my contributions considered. It is not uncommon for a man to interrupt me, tell me I am uniformed or to dismiss my suggestions often before I have even completed a sentence. Men’s usual response to knowing I own a business is, “So are you making any real money with this?” or, “Wow you actually own this business?”

Women’s usual response to knowing I own a business is to change the topic or to say, “I made a deliberate choice to put my family first,” (apparently I did not). When competing against a man who has a similar business to mine, I lose out to the man 90% of the time even though I frequently have more expertise, experience and qualifications. The majority of investors are male and dismiss my new product developments no matter how bullet proof they are or how well they fit into my business plan.

These experiences – and many others – led me to deeply consider the effects of paternalism, which is dictionary defined as “telling people what is ‘best’ for them” and is associated with the words, “authoritarianism,” “interventionism,” “over protectiveness,” and “control.” Unfortunately the person targeted with paternalism can never “grow up.”

The danger in paternalism is that you are considered a permanently flawed, weak and incompetent, under-developed creature to be pitied, ignored or at best benignly tolerated. Paternalism starts with considering women as weak and unworthy and it progresses to misogyny, racism, and other “isms” that place one group above another and make the “inferior” group somehow less human.

The reign of paternalism must end

My premise is that paternalism has got to go. Nobody benefits from it, including the people who hold paternalistic attitudes towards others and are blind to the talents of those around them. Paternalism does not allow people to be who they are, to develop their talents and capacities or to seek challenges, overcome obstacles and grow. Because of paternalism, many people do not achieve their potential and, as such, handicap all of society, leaving teams under-nourished and fearful, and depriving companies of the diverse, creative and fruitful contributions of their employees.

Under paternalism, passive, weak people lacking in confidence cannot perform useful functions without someone taking over for them and keeping them incompetent. This results in a lot of people at the bottom who are underutilized, resentful and unfulfilled with a few overworked chaps at the top who have to maintain a veneer of expertise and perfection that superheroes would not be able to match.

The paternalism checklist

So in an effort to contribute something useful to the demise of paternalism, I have compiled this checklist for all of us – and I include myself in this mission – to at least recognize our paternalistic attitudes and consider their harmful effects to our private and public lives. My hope is that as we all learn to recognize our own paternalistic attitudes we can more effectively move towards healthier attitudes where both sexes can grow to be the glorious and talented people they were intended to be.

This list is not exhaustive, and it is a difficult and emotional topic for most people. But just humour me for a while and read the list. I’m sure we can all see ourselves in at least some of them. In the table below, if you are a man give yourself a point for each item you believe applies to you in the “men” column. If you are a woman do the same thing for the “women” column:

Men Women
In a situation where women and men are present, you speak first. In a situation where both men and women are present, you usually listen.
At meetings, you are not aware of the women in the meeting unless they are particularly attractive. You assume a woman who is present is either a note taker, less experienced or lower in status than the men present. At meetings you do not see where you can insert a comment and you aren’t sure you have anything of value to contribute. If you are ignored by the men in the meeting you do not try to contribute but after the meeting you go to the chair to say what you had intended to contribute earlier. Or you don’t say anything.
If a woman speaks in a meeting, you find yourself automatically thinking why she is wrong, or you consider her comment naïve or uninformed. If a woman speaks at a meeting you feel obligated to let her know either during or afterwards that you disagree with her, or you take the side of man who disagrees with her.
If a man says something insulting or demeaning to a woman you do not do anything. If a man is insulted in a group by a woman, you feel morally outraged and obligated to come to his defense. If a woman is insulted in a group situation, you laugh or do nothing. You do the same if a man is insulted. If the situation involves taking sides for either the man or the woman, you always leap to the defense of the man.
If a man says something insulting or demeaning to a woman in a group situation, you look to the other men to see what they are doing. If they do nothing, you follow their example. If a man says something insulting or demeaning to a woman in a group situation, you pay close attention to the attitudes of the men.
You do not think there is anything wrong with women serving and men receiving. You automatically assume the role of serving, and it does not occur to you that men should serve. If a man offers to help you always refuse.
When you are receiving guests at home, you sit and talk while your wife/mother/sister gets the food ready. And/or you sit and talk while the women clean up. You always do the cooking, cleaning and hosting for everything in your own home. You like to be in control of your own kitchen and household. When you visit other homes you always help.
You are more concerned about your daughter’s behaviour than your son’s behaviour. Your daughter needs to be protected from men; your son needs to get experience with women. You are more concerned about your daughter’s behaviour than your son’s behaviour. Boys will be boys.
You feel you can relax when your daughter finds a man who will be able to take care of her. You feel you can relax when your daughter finds a man who will be able to take care of her.
You don’t think it is necessary for women to work outside the home, and you secretly believe that most women who have financially stable husbands would prefer not to work or to work part time. You make a point of telling women who are successful in their career that you “chose your family” and that in every situation “my family comes first”.
You resent the entry of women into traditionally male domains. You think women should do jobs that they are naturally inclined to do. It’s all right if girls want to do something that isn’t traditionally female, but if they suffer abuse on the job they should have expected it because that’s the way men are.
You may make decisions together with your wife but if a decision needs to be overridden by you, that is your prerogative as the man of the household. You take care to ensure that your husband thinks he came up with the good decisions and you congratulate him on his logical thinking. Men need to know they are right.
You do not listen to your wife because either she rarely has anything important to say or you know best anyway/or you often interrupt your wife. It does not occur to you to insist that your children are respectful towards their mother. If they make fun of her, that is her problem. No matter what you listen attentively to your husband and make sure the children are respectful towards their father, whether or not it is reciprocal. Or you publicly support your husband but privately undermine him to the children and others.
You often feel like an expert. And you like to prove it by giving “lessons” to women who need your guidance. You often are worried others will find out your expertise isn’t that good and you feel like a “fake”.
You don’t give a damn what your in-laws think, it’s your life. You feel you must always prove that you are a good mother and wife to your mother-in-law.
Losing face to a woman is the worst public insult you can imagine. A woman who rejects your advances deserves to be punished. You always worry about what people think about you, and how you look and sound to them. If a man makes unwanted advances to you, you try to laugh it off or to be polite so you don’t bruise his ego.
You feel threatened by women with more education or status than you. You are jealous of women who have more education or status than you. You may spread rumours about them or talk negatively about how they look or act.
You feel obligated to put women who are too confident in their place. You may interfere with their advancement in subtle ways that won’t get you in trouble. You feel obligated to put women who are too confident in their place – and you don’t let them forget it.
If one of your female relatives gets divorced it does not occur to you that the husband might be at fault and if he is, that is their problem. If one of your female relatives gets divorced you shun her, she obviously didn’t put effort into her marriage.
You think women with marital problems are hysterical, melodramatic or have some mental illness. You think women with marital problems should be careful not to upset the family harmony and reputation.
Total points Total points

This is clearly not a scientific study but let’s look at the results from these 20 questions. If you have 15 points or more, you are likely to be strongly paternalistic. 10 points means you pretty much follow what centuries of paternalism have taught and don’t question things much. 5 points or less means you have some specifics to work on, but your overall attitude is not strongly paternalistic.

Call to action

No matter what your score, as an action planchoose one or two of the items on the list and see if over the course of a couple of weeks you can make a conscious effort to question your motives and actions on those items. Try to make a change and see how you feel about it. Then talk about it and spread the word.

Gender is a learned social behaviour. So is paternalism. Let’s see what we can each do to make a few positive changes and support each other in the process. Mutual benefits guaranteed.


[1] CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi shows video of women he abused:

[2] UN 2014 stats on women in political office around the world:

  • Only 21.8 per cent of national parliamentarians were female as of 1 July 2014, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995 [1].
  • As of January 2014, 9 women served as Head of State and 15 served as Head of Government [2].
  • Rwanda had the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. Women there have won 63.8 per cent of seats in the lower house [3].
  • Globally, there are 38 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of January 2014 [4].-

See more at:

3] Women on corporate boards: Women represent 48% of the Canadian labour force.nIn 2012, women held 14.5% of board director positions among Canada’s Financial Post 500 companies (FP500). Over 40% of FP500 companies had no women directors (2012 data).

[4] See UN article on rise of violence towards women, shocking numbers around the world:

[5] Canadian poverty statistics show women are more likely than men to be both working poor and to live in poverty. ,

[6] Men’s suicide rates are generally 3:1 higher than women’s suicide rates.

[7] Depressed men and suicide:

[8] Heart disease gender differences:

[9] Emotional health for men: