In the past couple of decades, Western democracies have made some progress in terms of gender equality. There's still a very long way to go, but some progress is taking place. However, some parts of society are actively pushing against these rights.
Stereotypically, older men are regarded as the category most resistant to such change. But is this really the case?
A team of researchers from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, wanted to quantify beliefs about gender equality and sexism in Europe. They carried out a survey on 32,469 respondents in 27 EU countries, asking them to state to what extent they agree with the statement:
- Promoting women's and girls' rights has gone too far because it threatens men's and boys' opportunities.
There were notable differences between respondents based on their country and political leaning, and men were more likely to agree with the statement than women -- but the most striking trend was regarding age.
"The results show that young men aged 18 to 29 most often agree with this statement in our survey. The older the men are, the less they agree with this statement. Some women agree with the statement but to a far lesser extent than men of all ages. The results contradict previous research claiming that the older generation is the ones who are the most conservative and opposed to advances in women's rights," says Gefjon Off, a doctoral student in political science and author of the study.
"Some people believe that increased gender equality only benefits women and do not see the benefits for society as a whole. Some research suggests that this feeling of injustice can even motivate citizens to vote for right-wing radical parties who are against feminism and sexual freedom," Off adds.
The researchers also found some potential explanation for that -- and it's the things you'd sort of expect for this. People who were against immigration or supported traditional values were more likely to feel threatened by women's rights, but there was also a correlation to a recent unemployment rise. In places where unemployment had gone up significantly in recent years, young men were more likely to agree with the statement, and the same was observed in places where people have widespread mistrust of social institutions and face widespread corruption.
"Our empirical findings suggest that young men are particularly likely to perceive advances in women's rights as a threat to men's opportunities," the authors write in the study, "especially if they perceive institutions as unfair and if they reside in regions observing increases in unemployment."
For instance, Slovakia had the highest likelihood of young men feeling threatened by women's rights, and in some areas in Slovakia, local unemployment has risen recently by over 1%.
"More than other EU citizens, Slovaks think that their own country's public institutions are not impartial, that is, that their social institutions favor certain groups of people," says Nicholas Charron, Professor in political science.
The opposite was also observed. In northern Italy, where trust in institutions is relatively high and unemployment has fallen recently, people seemed to feel less threatened. This type of correlation was observed in several places.
So the researchers believe the findings strongly connect to the labor market. Young men are not established on the job market, they're still trying to find their way into the market, so it's easiest for them to feel threatened by the rise in women's rights.
"Possibly, young men who believe that women are out-competing them in the labor market experience advances in women's rights as unjust and a threat. We need to get better at communicating the benefits of gender equality. Fathers get to spend more time with their children and the burden of being the family's breadwinner is lightened when mothers in families also advance in their careers," says Gefjon Off.
However, the study also has several limitations. For starters, it only looked at one aspect related to sexism: the notion of competition between men and women. If we want to get a better understanding of true sexism in society, other components need to be interpreted as well. Furthermore, this only looked at European areas, and culture and the situation on the labor market could make other areas quite different.
Still, if we want to continue pursuing a more egalitarian society, understanding these biases and how they can be addressed is essential, and having an economical way to support social change is an important tool for this purpose. However, if we truly want to offer equal opportunities, the rights of women (and any category in society) shouldn't depend on the state of the labor market.
The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Political Science.