A new study provides scientific evidence for what many may have long suspected: an individual person's sexist beliefs can actually influence society as a whole. Well, crap.
According to ScienceDaily, researchers asked people in 57 different countries whether they agreed with two statements: "On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do" and "On the whole, men make better business executives than women do." At the same time, they measured gender equality (according to UN standards) in those countries. Then, two years later, they measured gender equality again. They found that countries with high levels of individual sexist beliefs experienced a decrease in gender equality over time. The study authors write,
Multilevel modeling showed that sexism directly predicted increases in gender inequality. This study provides the first evidence that sexist ideologies can create gender inequality within societies, and this finding suggests that sexism not only legitimizes the societal status quo, but also actively enhances the severity of the gender hierarchy.
It's not so surprising that the beliefs of people within a society could change that society's norms — especially since previous research has shown the dangers of even so-called "benevolent sexism." But study author Mark Brandt points out that some have downplayed this effect: "You could get the impression that having sexist beliefs, or prejudiced beliefs more generally, is just an individual thing — 'my beliefs don't impact you.'" But his team's findings suggest that's not the case. They also hint at one way sexism may grow in a culture: not suddenly, by law or dictate, but insidiously, person by person, so that at first, no one may notice it's happening. This is scary, but it's also potentially hopeful — if individuals can change gender equality for the worse, maybe they can also change it for the better. I'd like to see a study examining the opposite of Brandt's finding — whether egalitarian beliefs predict growing equality over time. If they do, it would be the best scientific evidence yet that the personal really is the political.