Are Most Men Sexist? Not If You Ask Them (But Yes).
The vast majority of men say they believe in gender equality, but what we think we believe and what we actually believe aren't always the same thing.
Are most men terrible? What would have seemed like a ludicrous question not too long ago now sparks genuine inquiry. In the wake of credible allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Chris Hardwick, Junot Diaz, Daniel Handler, T.J. Miller, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, and probably your high school soccer coach, the presumption of innocence has come to seem like grotesque naiveté.
Clearly, there is a significant population of male predators. So how do we think about the inherent goodness or badness of men — specifically in regards to their relationships with women — without being reductive or reactionary? Data helps. And while the numbers are somewhat reassuring, they are not uniformly comforting.
Most men are not openly, aggressively sexist, and broad trend data suggests that men’s views of gender equality are improving. But while hostile sexism — the misogynistic belief that women are inferior to men, and thus owe them services — is relatively rare and at an all-time low, troubling studies suggest men continue to hold onto vague notions of male superiority at alarmingly high rates. Though only about 6 percent of men commit sexual assault or rape and a mere 13 percent score within the top bracket when asked about hostile sexist views, just 17 percent of men wholly reject hostile sexism — implying that the vast majority of men cling to at least some sexist ideologies.
“It is not a large percentage of men that express sexist views,” Mary-Kate Lizotte of Augusta University told Fatherly. “But at least 70 percent of individuals endorse some hostile sexism statements.”
Are most men sexist, then? It really depends on how you define sexism. “At its most general level, sexism is prejudging the capabilities of individuals, especially women, on the basis of stereotypes about their gender, and acting in a discriminatory way in consequence,” Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families and The Evergreen State College in Washington, told Fatherly. “I don’t think anyone — male or female — is free of unconscious or implicit biases in a society where such gender stereotypes have been in place for so long.”
And that, not outright hostility, is the source of many of the more worrisome sentiments.
These implicit biases don’t usually trigger assault or rape. Aggression toward women is more often fueled by outright malice and sociopathy. Implicit biases about women more often take the form of “benevolent sexism,” the ascribing of certain traits (nurturing, caring). “In workplaces, men express these views by protecting women from stressful jobs or channeling them into people-oriented positions that require less assertiveness or leadership — and, usually, pay less,” says Coontz. At home, this may translate into dad assuming that mom will be better at taking care of the kids. In the workplace, widespread subconscious sexism influences hiring decisions, impacts the way in which students evaluate professors, and holds sway over how voters judge political candidates.
“A majority of men endorse some benevolent sexist beliefs,” Lizotte says.
At the same time, most men take great pains to distance themselves from hardline sexist beliefs. “There are some men who are overtly sexist and are more than willing to engage in violence against women,” Andrew Smiler, a North Carolina-based therapist and co-author of the textbook The Masculine Self, told Fatherly. “But most men are accepting or even supporting of gender equality. Men — especially those under 40 — have few qualms about women having careers, about reporting to a female boss, or about women going to college or playing sports.”
If Smiler’s take seems contradictory to survey data, that’s because it is. It also isn’t. A recent national survey of the gender attitudes of more than 2,000 Australian men illustrates just how tangled biases can get. “Our survey respondents held multiple, often contradictory value systems,” says Pia Rowe, who helped conduct this research for the “50/50 by 2030 Foundation”, a gender equality initiative established by the University of Canberra in Australia. Most men supported gender equality, the survey found, but opined that women are naturally better at caring for children; they agreed that women are suited for leadership roles, but expressed frustration that women enjoy unfair advantages in the workplace. “It’s important that we understand these nuances,” Rowe says.
Other research echoes these findings. Men are less likely than women to endorse equal opportunity in the workplace, advocate shared household and parenting duties, and oppose a double standard for sex before marriage, one study found. Related studies have shown that the gender gap between men and women who identify as feminists may be as low as 9 percent — or as high as 40 percent. This is all to say that we’ve gotten very good at agreeing on sexual politics, without having the harder conversations. Most men are not sexually assaulting women. Heck, the majority of men may identify as feminists. But harmful attitudes persist among the majority.
The good news is that men are improving. “We know that hostile sexism is fading,” Coontz says. Domestic violence rates have steadily declined since the 1970s, she says, and the overarching Gender Attitudes Scale suggests that men and women are inching toward egalitarian worldviews at about the same rate. Even unconscious gender biases are decreasing, trend data suggests, as men become more aware of women’s challenges and more willing to support gender equality. “Attitudes toward women and gender equality are becoming more progressive over time,” Lizotte says. “This is partly because younger generations are more likely to have had a mother that works outside of the home, or for men to have had a wife that works outside of the home.”
Naturally, there are caveats. There’s a worrying trend emerging among millennials, for instance. “We expected millennials to be the progressive generation,” Rowe says. “But to our surprise, this was often not the case, with millennial men in particular now sliding back into those traditional value systems. We don’t know why yet.” And there’s the fact that we can never quite trust sexist men to reveal their true colors to scientists. “Individuals are not completely honest on surveys,” Lizotte admits. And tend to provide socially-acceptable answers, true or not.
Then there’s the fact that plenty of men who promote gender equality in theory and in surveys often fail to live up to their own standards. Harvey Weinstein was a champion of feminist causes during the years that he was sexually assaulting women. This hypocrisy calls into question whether studying gender attitudes tells us anything about how men actually think and act. “Answers to questions about what gender relations should be don’t always capture what some men feel their own entitlements are,” Coontz says. “A number of credibly-accused sexual offenders supported the goals of gender equality in public, and were helpful to some women in their lives.”
Taken together, experts are convinced that most men are not hostile, aggressive sexists. Most men are not committing sexual assault or rape, and most men are not consciously keeping women down. But experts also agree that there is a fundamental difference between recognizing that not all men are sexist — a reasonable position of nuance, supported by data — and weaponizing this insight to delegitimize the push toward equality.
In the aftermath of #MeToo, a countermovement known as #NotAllMen rose up on social media with this very intention. “Campaigns like #NotAllMen typically use the fact that most men are not abusive or sexist as a shield for those who are abusive and sexist,” Smiler says. “It trivializes some of those very real and significant problems such as sexism or domestic violence,” Rowe adds. “It turns the attention back to men and their feelings, and almost gives people the permission to not do anything about these issues.”
This is a gross misuse of the data — if an understandable one. “Of course men who have not sexually assaulted anyone are either mortified or defensive about the possibility of being lumped in with those who would,” Coontz says. “I understand the urge to object.” At the same time, Coontz believes that there are more productive ways for good men to both distinguish themselves from the misogynists and also beat back sexism at its root. “It’s men’s responsibility to let other men know that they don’t approve of this behavior,” she says. “#UsMenToo — instead of the defensive #NotAllMen, which just asserts innocence and doesn’t suggest involvement in changing things.”
“I am sympathetic to the sense of insecurity and defensiveness that many men must feel,” Coontz says. “We’re all struggling with these issues. I think we are making progress.”