A person’s political beliefs tends to have a stronger influence on their support for gender equality than their personal experiences with gender inequality, according to new research published in Political Psychology. In other words, even if a person has (or has not) directly experienced gender inequality, their political beliefs can overpower how much they support pro-equality efforts.
Gender equality is a hot topic, and many organizations seek to objectively track its development — such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. But these different indices of gender equality can be inconsistent, with some indicating that no country has achieved equality yet, while others indicate that women have surpassed men in some domains. The researchers behind the current study wanted to see how people in countries with relatively high equality perceive gender inequality and how their beliefs impact their support for equality.
“I sense that issues around gender, such as gender equality are a topic that interests many people in our society and that is often subject of emotional controversies,” said study author Timur Sevincer, a psychology professor at Leuphana University Lueneburg. “Whenever I touch any subject around gender in my psychology lectures, I can surely count on getting the attention of the whole class. Some students even seem to get tense when we talk about these issues.”
The researchers examined people’s beliefs about personal inequality (how fairly they themselves are treated compared to others of a different gender) and societal inequality (how fairly men and women are treated in general). They also assessed political ideology. The researchers wanted to better understand how people subjectively perceive current levels of gender inequality. They also wanted to determine which of these factors had the greatest impact on support for gender equality.
To this end, Sevincer and his colleagues conducted four studies in three different countries – the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany – all of which have medium to high levels of gender equality. The researchers measured support for gender equality in three different ways.
First, they asked participants about their attitudes towards measures of equal opportunity using a 7-point scale (“How much do you oppose or support measures of equal opportunity in the context of gender equality for men and women?”). Second, they asked about people’s intentions to engage in gender equality actions, such as taking part in workplace measures, signing a petition, making a social media post, or joining a protest.
Finally, the researchers gave participants $1.00 and the option to donate a portion of the money to a women’s rights organization and/or a men’s rights organization. Participants could choose how much to donate or keep for themselves, and the total amount donated was used as an index of action to support equality.
The studies included 671 residents of the United States, 405 residents of the United Kingdom, and 327 members of state parliaments in Germany.
Both men and women thought that women were treated unfairly in society, but women tended to feel that the unfairness was worse than men thought it was. The women in the study reported experiencing less inequality personally compared to what they reported for women as a group. In other words, they felt that women, in general, were treated more unfairly than they were personally treated.
“Objective indicators of gender equality paint an inconsistent picture of the current inequality of men and women in societies with relatively high equality, particularly in Western liberal democracies,” Sevincer told PsyPost.
“While some indicators point to an ongoing disadvantage for women, for example in wealth and income, according to other indicators men have fallen behind women, particularly in health and education. When it comes to people’s subjective perceptions of current inequality, however, both men and women report that women are at a disadvantage, although women perceive more disadvantage than men.”
The researchers found that the perception of inequality in society was a stronger predictor of support for gender equality than personal experiences of inequality. However, they also found that political ideology was consistently the strongest predictor of equality support across all studies. The more liberal the participants were, the more supportive they were of gender equality as indicated by their attitudes, intentions, and actual actions.
“Another interesting finding was that what leads people to actively support measures to foster gender equality is not so much whether they personally experienced or perceive inequality but rather their political leaning,” Sevincer said. “This finding can be interpreted such that people’s political ideology may overshadow their personal experiences with inequality.”
The study, “Political Ideology Outdoes Personal Experience in Predicting Support for Gender Equality“, was authored by A. Timur Sevincer, Cindy Galinsky, Lena Martensen, and Gabriele Oettingen.