Fathers who more strongly endorsed hostile sexism were more aggressive toward their partners and children during confinement, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. This was especially true of fathers who felt a lack of power within their partnership or who reported a low-quality relationship with their child.
Hostile sexism involves a negative evaluation of women and the belief that men should maintain power and privilege over women. The idea that a female partner is trying to take away this power can lead men to react aggressively — studies suggest that men with greater hostile sexism are more aggressive toward their female partners and more controlling of their children.
A team of researchers led by Nickola C. Overall wondered whether the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated the risk of aggression within families. Job losses and childcare difficulties led to increased family stress, and confinement left parents with less outside support than usual. These conditions might have worsened the toll of the pandemic on children and family health.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a range of conditions that increase the risk of family-based aggression. Families have been forced to manage economic and work stress, increased family demands, social isolation, and reduced access to help. We wanted to identify risk factors that determined whether these stressful conditions created family-based aggression during COVID-19 lockdowns,” explained Overall, a psychology professor at the University of Auckland.
“To do this, we examined the role of an established risk factor of relationship aggression—men’s hostile sexism. Hostile sexism involves a set of beliefs stipulating that men should possess social power and authority in the home. Men’s hostile sexism is a robust risk factor for relationship aggression, particularly in situations that challenge feelings of power and control. The stress, confinement and pressured family roles within COVID-19 lockdowns challenged feelings of power and thus amplified the risk of family-based aggression by men higher in hostile sexism.”
The authors of the study obtained data from an ongoing study of New Zealand families. The sample was made up of 362 parents who had been together for an average of 11 years and had at least one child at home between the ages of 4 and 5.
For the current analysis, the researchers were interested in comparing data collected before and during New Zealand’s mandatory, 5-week confinement period in March/April of 2020. Both before and during the lockdown, parents completed assessments of sexism, verbal aggression toward partners, and aggressive parenting. During lockdown, parents completed additional measures of life stress, power felt during family interactions, and quality of family relationships.
After controlling for aggression levels prior to lockdown, men who endorsed greater hostile sexism reported being more aggressive (e.g., yelling, shouting) toward their partners and children during lockdown. Men who endorsed greater benevolent sexism, a belief system that assumes women need to be cherished and protected by men, were not more aggressive toward their partners and were actually less aggressive toward their children.
As expected, higher life stress, lower quality parent-child relationships, and lower quality couple relationships were each associated with increased aggression during lockdown.
Men who endorsed more hostile sexism also reported feeling less power during interactions with their partners during lockdown. This lack of power moderated the effect of hostile sexism on aggression toward partners — when men reported feeling lower power during partner interactions, higher hostile sexism predicted more aggression toward their partner. But when men reported considerably higher power during interactions, hostile aggression was no longer predictive of men’s aggression toward partners.
Next, the quality of the father-child bond moderated the effect of hostile sexism on aggression toward children. Greater hostile sexism among men was only associated with more aggressive parenting when men also reported a low-quality relationship with their child, and not when they reported a high-quality one.
“Our results confirmed that stress, confinement and pressured family roles within COVID-19 lockdowns have created risk for family-based aggression, including aggression within couple relationships and harsher parenting. This risk, however, depends on pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as men’s hostile sexism,” Overall told PsyPost.
“Men who reported greater hostile sexism prior to the pandemic showed increased aggression toward both their intimate partners and their children, including yelling, shouting and insulting their partners and children as well as using physical punishment. The link between men’s hostile sexism and family-based aggression was particularly likely to occur when men felt a lack of power in lockdown or experience low quality relationship with their children.”
Interestingly, benevolent sexism among women — but not hostile sexism — was associated with higher aggression toward partners. The study authors speculate that the high-stress circumstances of the pandemic may have amplified women’s expectations that men should take on a protective role for the family — heightening the impact of women’s benevolent sexism on aggression.
Among limitations, the data did not include partner reports of aggression, which could have helped corroborate the self-report measures. The researchers noted that their New Zealand sample reported relatively low levels of sexism and that less egalitarian societies likely face a greater risk for aggression during confinement.
“This research was the first test of whether sexist attitudes longitudinally predict aggression toward intimate partners and children,” Overall said. “No-one saw the pandemic coming and so most research examining the impact of the pandemic was initiated once the pandemic began. We were fortunate enough to be able to extend an ongoing family study in which parents had reported on their sexist attitudes and aggressive behavior toward intimate partners and children prior to the pandemic.
“Parents then reported on their aggression toward partners and children during a nationwide lockdown in New Zealand (NZ), which involved mandatory and enforced confinement in the home for 5 weeks. The longitudinal design allowed us to test whether men’s pre-lockdown hostile sexism predicted residual changes in aggressive behavior toward intimate partners and children.”
“Nonetheless, the longitudinal data were correlational, and lockdown assessments necessarily involved self-report measures of aggressive behavior, which may underestimate the level of aggression occurring,” Overall explained. “Additionally, the families in our study entered lockdown with relatively high-quality relationships. The risk of family-based aggression, and the damaging effects of hostile sexism, may be far greater for families facing more substantial challenges and conflictual family relationships.”
The authors wrote in their study that “targeting power-related gender role beliefs when screening for aggression risk” as well as therapeutic interventions might help families who are confronted with aggression during lockdown.
“Identifying risk factors of family-based aggression is important to understand and mitigate the costs of the pandemic,” Overall told PsyPost. “These results illustrate the important ways gender-role attitudes create family dynamics that have harmful consequences for parents and their children. Targeting power-related gender role beliefs when screening for aggression risk and delivering therapeutic or education interventions may help mitigate family aggression as families face the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.”
The study, “Sexist Attitudes Predict Family-Based Aggression During a COVID-19 Lockdown”, was authored by Nickola C. Overall, Valerie T. Chang, Emily J. Cross, Rachel S. T. Low, and Annette M. E. Henderson.