Conversations around sexual assault, harassment and discrimination against women sparked by the #MeToo movement did virtually nothing to change the pervasiveness of sexist attitudes among the American public, according to new research based on extensive surveys.
Views among the U.S. population indicative of what researchers called "modern sexism" remained "remarkably stable" from the summer of 2016 through spring of 2018, the time during which reporting on Donald Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape and Harvey Weinstein's pattern of sexual abuse was published in the news media, among many other revelations about sexual misconduct, according to a Public Opinion Quarterly paper released March 12.
"As the #MeToo movement unfolded, I found myself very intrigued about how the American public was responding," said Cindy Kam, a political psychologist at Vanderbilt University, who wrote the paper alongside Allison Archer of the University of Houston. "We did not find any change in sexist attitudes on average. None."
In a series of surveys intended to be representative of the U.S. population, Kam and Archer measured "modern sexism," an established metric designed to show whether respondents deny that discrimination against women exists and express resentment against efforts to identify or address gender-based inequities.
"Society has moved beyond this question of whether women belong in the home or not," said Kam. "So modern sexism touches on this idea that, yes, women are in society, but are they trying to get more than they deserve? Are they trying to push their way into places they shouldn't be?"
To measure modern sexism, the researchers asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with three statements: "When women demand equality these days, they are actually seeking special favors," "Women often miss out on good jobs because of discrimination," and "Women who complain about harassment cause more problems than they solve." They then coded the answers into a score between zero and one, with one being the most sexist.
In a survey of 12,500 people in July 2016, respondents showed an average sexism score of 0.37. In a follow-up in December 2016 — after the "Access Hollywood" tape emerged and Donald Trump won the presidential election — more than 10,000 of the same participants were reinterviewed and expressed a baseline sexism score of 0.38.
Then, in April 2018 — following the 2017 Women's March on Washington and reporting on sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile men — researchers reinterviewed 1,300 of the original respondents and 800 new respondents, who expressed a sexism score of 0.37.
The researchers stratified the results of the surveys, which were taken by YouGov, by categories including gender, age and political affiliation. While men were generally more sexist than women, older people more sexist than younger people and Republicans more sexist than Democrats, no group registered an especially strong shift in opinion during the roughly 21-month period covered by the surveys.
"To us, these findings were somewhat surprising, but maybe not," said Kam. "People's sexist attitudes are quite stable and firmly rooted in the lived experiences that they have."
Kam said she expected the #MeToo movement to have had at least some effect on modern sexism. One of her hypotheses was that it would have reduced overall sexism, while another was that it would have lowered sexism among Democrats and increased it among Republicans due to the partisan nature of the movement. These expectations were heightened by media coverage of #MeToo, she said.
For example, The New York Times' news section called #MeToo a "collective awakening" in 2018, writing that the paper's own article on Harvey Weinstein "hit like a meteor, drastically altering the landscape around how sexual misconduct is perceived."
Kam said that such news reports gave her "naive" expectations for the outcome of her study.
"We expected to find, like many journalists have written, that the American public became more aware ... and became less sexist as a result," said Kam.
Since the surveys concluded, several other high-profile conversations around sexism and sexual misconduct have occurred, including the fall 2018 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the 2019 arrest and death of Jeffrey Epstein and the recent accusations of sexual misconduct against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"April 2018 feels like a billion years ago," said Kam.
However, Kam said she does not expect these events to have significantly changed Americans' views on sexism, as she says the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests have overshadowed women's issues.
"I don't believe there's really anything that's been a stronger voice [about sexism] than #MeToo would've been," she said.
The paper, "Modern Sexism in Modern Times: Public Opinion in the #Metoo Era," published March 12 in Public Opinion Quarterly, was authored by Allison M. N. Archer, University of Houston; and Cindy D. Kam, Vanderbilt University.