Liberal women tend to report higher levels of political participation if they have experienced sex-based discrimination, according to new scientific findings published in
American Politics Research. But this does not appear to be the case among conservative women.
The study highlights that facing sexism in one’s personal life has different implications for women based on their political ideology.
“During the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, many political pundits kept talking about the ‘gender gap’ in the public’s evaluation of Kavanaugh, suggesting that women are a monolithic bloc that would oppose his confirmation,” said study author Alexa Bankert, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
“Even a cursory look at the data, however, showed that there was no gender gap — only a partisan gap. Indeed, some polls suggested that the difference in favorable views of Kavanaugh was bigger between Republican women and Democratic women than between Republican and Democratic men. This is when I became first interested in the intersection of gender and ideology/partisanship.”
For her study, Bankert analyzed data from the 2016 American National Election Pilot Study, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,200 participants. The survey asked participants “How much have you personally experienced discrimination because of your sex or gender?” and also asked them to indicate how much discrimination they believed there was against women in the United States. It also assessed their political participation.
Bankert also used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to conduct an online experiment with 196 women in February 2017. The participants were randomly assigned to either write about a time they felt discriminated against due to their sex or to describe the current weather. They then reported their interest in various political activities.
A similar pattern was observed in both sets of data.
“I found that liberal women – when experiencing sexism or discrimination – turn toward direct political action like volunteering for a campaign, while conservative women do not show a similar increase in their political engagement. So, the impact of sexism on women’s political behavior differs based on their ideology. (Notably, I did not find a similar effect among men,) Bankert told PsyPost.
Many of conservative women stated they had not experienced sexism.
“Among conservative women, the perception dominates that sexist behavior consists of isolated incidents while liberal women view sexism as a more systemic problem. This might explain why experienced sexism amplifies liberal women’s political engagement but there is not a similar participatory impetus among conservative women.”
Another survey, which included 1,084 university students, provided some insight into why liberal woman were more likely than conservatives to report experiencing sex-based discrimination.
“Key to the findings are differences between what liberal and conservative women categorize as sexual harassment. Liberal women reported experiencing sexism at much higher rates than conservative women. Part of the reason for that asymmetry is that conservative women have a much narrower understanding of sexism than their liberal counterparts,” Bankert explained.
In the survey, the students were presented with a list of 16 sexist behaviors of varying severity and asked to indicate every behavior they believed was “sexual harassment.”
“For liberal women, 13 of the 16 behaviors were believed to be sexist whereas among conservative women, only half of those 16 behaviors were considered sexist,” Bankert said. For example, while 73% of liberal women viewed catcalling to be a form of sexual harassment, only 46% of conservative women agreed.
As with any study, the research includes some caveats.
“I remain ambivalent about the type of sexism that is connected to the effects reported in my study. Prior research has distinguished, among others, between ambivalent sexism, benevolent sexism, and hostile sexism. Future research might explore what type of sexism is most strongly connected to political engagement among women on the liberal and conservative side of the ideological spectrum,” Bankert explained.
“It is also possible that liberal and conservative women simply turn to different solutions to address sexism. While liberal women might turn towards overt forms of political action, conservative women might organize in others forms. For example, the conservative organization ‘Concerned Women for America’ offers prayer networks that are at its core about grassroots involvement in political issues without labeling it as such. Thus, standard measures of political participation might be unable to capture these alternative forms of engagement.”
The study also sheds light on how personal experiences can impact the political process.
“There is a general implication about the effect of discrimination – of any sort – on political engagement. Most national election studies do not ask respondents whether they have ever been the targets of discrimination, possibly because this question is very sensitive and prone to produce biased responses,” Bankert said.
“Nevertheless, the study shows that asking respondents about their mere perception of discrimination is not the same — and does not exert the same effects — as asking them about their personal experience with it. From that vantage point, it appears to be essential to include questions about personally experienced discrimination in future election studies in order to examine the effects of a broad range of discrimination on Americans’ political behavior including discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and nationality.”
The study, “Let’s Talk About Sexism: The Differential Effects of Gender Discrimination on Liberal and Conservative Women’s Political Engagement“, was published July 9, 2020.