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Are You Less Sexist Than Most Guys? You’d Be Surprised.

New research offers a few clues why male ‘feminists’ and ‘allies’ are often the worst offenders — and the lies they tell themselves to rationalize it

Are you less sexist than most men? 

You likely think you are, according to a study published last year in Men & Masculinities. In “Not Your Average Joe: Pluralistic Ignorance, Status and Modern Sexism,” Tagart Sobotka, a PhD candidate at Stanford University, interviewed 214 men using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, a 22-item questionnaire to assesses levels of hostile and benevolent sexism toward women. Respondents are prompted to agree or disagree with statements like “Discrimination against women is no longer a problem,” “Women complain too often” and “Women exaggerate problems they have at work.” 

Sobotka was particularly interested in “first order beliefs” (i.e., what subjects personally believe); “second-order beliefs” (what they think their peers believe); and “third order beliefs” (assumptions on what “most men” believe). “Men perceived that ‘most men’ would agree with sexist statements, even if they didn’t personally endorse them,” Sobotka tells me. 

Sexism is complicated, and hardly just a matter of generational ignorance. In fact, research has found some men to become less sexist as they get older. Male CEOs, for example, tend to lead more ethical companies when they have daughters, and CEOs pushing for more gender balance are often Boomer men. Meanwhile, despite millennials proselytizing gender obsolescence, sexist patterns have been hard to shed. A 2014 Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults found that young men were significantly less open to accepting women leaders than older men. Along those lines, only 41 percent of millennial men were comfortable with female engineers, compared to 65 percent of men 65 or older; and less than half of millennial men were comfortable with women being U.S. senators, compared to 64 percent of Americans overall. 

And yet, the subjects Sobotka researched consistently believed they were less sexist than “most men.” He chalks up the discrepancy to pluralistic ignorance — that is, when people’s individual beliefs don’t coincide with what they think others believe. The findings provide insight into the ways in which such ignorance and the sexist actions of “high-status men” (professional athletes, celebrities, etc.) may contribute to systems of gender inequality. 

I recently spoke with Sobotka about the perils of pluralistic ignorance, how guys like Harry Styles, Terry Crews and Donald Trump create perceptions of sexism among “other men” and why self-described male “feminists” can often be the most discriminatory kinda guy. 

What happens when guys believe most men are more sexist than they are?

It may motivate them to suppress personally held progressive beliefs. Decades of social psychological research show that we try to conform to a group, and that’s why the discrepancy between first and third order belief is so great. Men hanging out at a bar, for example, draw upon generalized assumptions of what they think most men believe. Even though men may personally endorse egalitarian ideas, they’re less likely to speak up for them. It also gives them wiggle room to say that they’re different, or “better,”  than most men, even when they aren’t.

What drew you to this subject? 

I was interested in the “Nice Guy” phenomenon and delving into a concept called moral licensing, which is the process of fooling ourselves with good behavior to justify bad behavior. When people do good things, it sometimes leads to dishonest, unethical or bad actions because they’ve built up a moral credential. That led me to hypothesize that men who espouse non-sexist beliefs might subsequently behave in ways that reinforce gender inequality. I wondered, What are the larger social conditions that drive the idea of “I’m not like most guys”? I think pluralistic ignorance has a lot to do with it. 

What’s another example of this kind of ignorance? 

College drinking. Research has shown that incoming freshmen tend to think most people embrace drinking culture on campus, despite themselves being uncomfortable with it. Over time, though, men’s personal views on college drinking culture get closer to what they think other people’s beliefs are. 

How does pluralistic ignorance relate to sexism? 

There isn’t much literature on that. We know men like to think that they’re “different” from most men, and that there are hierarchies related to what’s considered ideal masculinity — diffuse beliefs about what men are, what they believe and what they think. This is how gender inequality is reinforced. Even though men are starting to personally endorse egalitarian and non-sexist beliefs, we see more hegemonic portrayals of traditional masculinity, particularly in the media. Look at the machismo behavior of Donald Trump with regard to COVID, though we could pick any number of things from him that reinforce the notion of what “real” men are supposed to be like.

Are men really this impressionable, though? Or maybe better put, how do men typically form opinions about what other men believe?

In a study of children at a summer camp, researchers found that when high-status boys (those who were athletic and/or perceived as “cool”) started playing “girl games” like hand-clapping, other boys soon followed. But if they disparaged it, the opposite happened. 

This phenomenon is reflected in our broader culture, too. Terry Crews’ ideas about positive masculinity are visible and considered high status, inspiring many men to go against traditional beliefs about masculinity. Same with guys like Lenny Kravitz, Harry Styles and men who speak out against sexism in the movie industry, They’re sending a message that this is the way men should be. 

That said, I grew up in the rural Midwest, where it remains fairly traditional, and not everybody sees those individuals as high status and may not respect them. The challenge is to determine who the Average Joe finds respectable, thus the title of my paper. Many men see Trump as high status, and many obviously don’t. While some men in my study didn’t personally see Trump as high status, they often thought others did. 

You note that when a man fails to achieve masculine ideals, he may attempt to recoup his masculinity by engaging in the sexual subordination of women.

Yes, when that masculinity is threatened, dominance over women is a typical outcome, per a huge body of literature on masculinity overcompensation. Men fall back on what they think are normative masculinities. Hypermasculinity studies have focused a lot recently on the idea of being “different” than most men, even when people may act exactly the same way or worse than other “bad” men. That leads to a lot of problems because men are doing extremely sexist, dickish things and their behavior may be far more sexist than they realize because their perception of what other men believe is so extreme. They think they’re unique when they often are not. 

My first hypothesis, therefore, was that first-order sexism (“what I personally believe”) would be lower than third-order sexism (“what most men believe”), which was supported by the evidence. I then set out to show that these are truly held beliefs: Men really do believe other men have more sexist beliefs than they do themselves.

Is there a way to combat pluralistic ignorance? 

Maybe. Bystander intervention training, for example, is one way they’re trying to break it down on college campuses. With regard to racial justice, the phrase “silence is violence” is used a lot. Fraternities are urging members to stand up and prevent sexual assault, despite them being worried about what everybody else in their house thinks. Because if you ask them individually, most want to stand up to it. Part of my study focused on if we can change this. 

Can we? 

Perhaps. It comes down to those third-order beliefs (“most men are more sexist than I am”), which are rooted in status hierarchies. When people meet strangers, they often draw upon such diffuse beliefs about competency. Men are often perceived to be more competent in society, and inadvertently pushed to leadership roles because they’re more likely to be seen as legitimate leaders.

Others strive to be like high-status individuals. When they see someone of high status acting in a way that’s sexist, they may be driven to endorse sexist beliefs more. It also might impact what they think other men believe, pushing those third-order beliefs in a more extreme direction. On the other hand, if we see someone of low status acting sexist and disgusting, we’re not going to want to be like them.

What do you hope the main takeaway from your research is?

That we need to be having these conversations. Tradition often gets forced and reinforced upon us. Things like bystander-intervention training are steps in the right direction, but in a larger context, for progress to occur, guys need to talk openly about doing the dishes, expressing emotions and calling out friends for sexist behavior — and know that their buddies will have their back.