Attitudes towards women are hostile and contemptuous, according to the standard model of prejudice (as described by Glick & Fiske, 2001). This view is prevalent:
A “culture of misogyny” is “deeply-rooted in our society” (Kathleen Wynne, former Premier of Ontario). “We live in a culture of casual misogyny” (Megan Leslie, former deputy leader, New Democratic Party in Canada). We live in a “patriarchal misogynistic society” (Tina Garnett, Equity Committee Coordinator, York University). “Misogyny runs so deep in this society […] all the women-hating, woman-blaming, woman-fearing instincts” (Polly Toynbee, columnist for The Guardian). “[W]e should look in the mirror for woman-hating culture” (Stephen Hume, columnist for the Vancouver Sun). “This Is How Much America Hates Women” (Anne Helen Petersen, PhD, writer for BuzzFeed News). “America really, really hates women […] there is actually nothing women can do that is right” (Megan Murphy, Feminist Current).
But the actual psychological research on gender attitudes and stereotypes paints a very different picture, one where women are viewed more positively than men. Glick and Fiske describe this phenomenon (the women-are-wonderful effect) as an “extremely robust” finding (although it is found more strongly among women than among men).
- Explicit measures (conscious attitudes)
- Eagly and Mladinic (1994)
- Haddock and Zanna (1994)
- Skowronski and Lawrence (2001)
- Eagly et al. (2018)
- Implicit measures (non-conscious, automatic associations)
- Nosek and Banaji (2001)
- Rudman and Goodwin (2004)
- Addressing rebuttals
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1. Explicit measures
The tests in this section are straightforward: people are asked about their attitudes and stereotypes regarding men and women.
1.1 Eagly and Mladinic (1994)
Participants were asked to rate the groups “men” and “women” on semantic scales (like good–bad, valuable–useless, and nice–awful). They were also asked to provide traits characteristic of each gender (the traits were then themselves rated on a good-bad scale). The results come from two different studies by the authors.
The results indicate more favorable attitudes to women than to men (as groups and as stereotypes). The authors explain that their results are not solely a result of in-group favoritism among women.
1.2 Haddock and Zanna (1994)
In Experiment 1 of this paper, participants were asked to provide a number to indicate their “overall evaluation” of certain groups, including men and women. As in Eagly and Mladinic (1994), both men and women were more favorable to women than to men.
This preference for women held for participants both with and without sympathies for right-wing authoritarianism (one of the interests of the study).
1.3 Skowronski and Lawrence (2001)
This study was similar to Eagly and Mladinic (1994) in method, except that children were also tested (in addition to university students) and the categories “male soldier” and “female soldier” were included (in addition to “male” and “female”).
For “male” and “female”, all four gender/age participant groups had more favorable attitudes to females. For “male soldier” and “female soldier”, three of the four groups had more favorable attitudes to female soldiers than male ones. One group, male university students, had more favorable attitudes to male soldiers than female ones.
1.4 Eagly et al. (2018)
This study is a meta-analysis of 16 public opinion polls that were undertaken between 1946 and 2018 and covered more than 30,000 American adults. In each poll, respondents were given traits and asked if they were more true of men, women, or equally true of both. The traits were grouped into four categories: communion (e.g., compassionate, warm, expressive), agency (e.g., ambitious, assertive, competitive), competence, and intelligence.
Starting with competence and intelligence, the most common response (especially in more recent years) was that men and women are equal. However, people who had a preference were more likely to indicate female superiority than male superiority. Women had a very large lead in communion traits, while men had a smaller lead in perceived agentive traits.
2. Implicit measures
Instead of straightforwardly asking people about their attitudes to different groups, the tests in this section use more subtle methods (like testing how quickly people respond to certain stimuli on a screen) to test people’s automatic associations between groups (men or women) and positive or negative concepts.
This is a popular way to gain insight into people’s “deep down” biases (especially racial biases), but there is controversy over these methods and what the results really mean (see this overview). I’ve included these results for completeness but if you’re skeptical about implicit bias then you should focus on the explicit measures above.
2.1 Nosek and Banaji (2001)
This paper uses the implicit association test and the go/no-go association task.
With the first method (IAT), women showed a “strong” preference for women, while men showed a “slight” preference for men. Across both groups, this averages out to an overall preference for women.
With the second method (GNAT), shown below, women had positive attitudes towards women and negative attitudes towards men. Men had indifferent/neutral attitudes towards women and negative attitudes towards men (which means seeing women more favorably than men, although not as strongly as women did).
2.1 Rudman and Goodwin (2004)
This study involves four experiments designed to answer the question “why do women like women more than men like men?”, using the implicit association test.
Experiment 1 finds that both genders have high self-esteem, but women link their self-esteem to their feelings about their gender (e.g. “if I am good and I am female, females are good”) while men do not.
Experiment 2 finds that people who implicitly favoured their mothers (or were raised primarily by a woman) also implicitly favoured women more generally.
Experiment 3 finds that people who associate men with being physically threatening also tended to have a higher pro-female implicit bias.
Experiment 4 finds that men who like sex more and have more sexual experience tend to have higher pro-female implicit biases. Women who like sex more tended to have higher pro-male biases (but there was no effect of sexual experience for women).
3. Addressing rebuttals
Some dismiss the women-are-wonderful effect by calling it benevolent sexism against women and saying that it primarily hurts women. I disagree with this approach, but even if it’s correct, it still doesn’t justify saying that we live in a “culture of misogyny”. Hostile attitudes and favorable attitudes are very different, and even if you think that they have the same effect (hurting women), they’re not interchangeable as concepts.
Some dismiss the women-are-wonderful effect because it doesn’t mean that all women (or all types of women) are viewed favorably. This is true but trivial. Any large group is going to have some of its members viewed favorably and some unfavorably. That doesn’t discount findings that some groups are viewed more positively, overall, than others.
One valid issue to raise with these findings is that these experiments were primarily done on university undergraduate students. Eagly and Mladinic themselves note that they don’t have enough data to know whether their findings generalize to older, less educated, or non-North American populations. This is a common weakness in psychology studies that somewhat narrows the applicability of the findings.
In order of mention:
- “An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality” by Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske (2001, American Psychologist)
- “Are People Prejudiced Against Women? Some Answers From Research on Attitudes, Gender Stereotypes, and Judgments of Competence” by Alice H. Eagly and Antonio Mladinic (1994, European Review of Social Psychology)
- “Preferring ‘Housewives’ to ‘Feminists’: Categorization and the Favorability of Attitudes Toward Women” by Geoffrey Haddock and Mark P. Zanna (1994, Psychology of Women Quarterly)
- “Gender Stereotypes Have Changed: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of U.S. Public Opinion Polls From 1946 to 2018” by Alice H. Eagly, Christa Nater, David I. Miller, Michèle Kaufmann, and Sabine Sczesny (2018, American Psychologist)
- “The Go/No-Go Association Task” by Brian A. Nosek and Mahzarin R. Banaj (2001, Social Cognition)
- “A Comparative Study of the Implicit and Explicit Gender Attitudes of Children and College Students” by John J. Skowronski and Melissa A. Lawrence (2001, Psychology of Women Quarterly)
- “Gender Differences in Automatic In-Group Bias: Why Do Women Like Women More Than Men Like Men?” by Laurie A. Rudman and Stephanie A. Goodwin (2004, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)