Trump supporters, "modern sexism" and the 2016 US election

Can a historic event such as the US election have the power to affect people’s attitudes around gender?

By Oriane Georgeac , Aneeta Rattan and Daniel Effron 04 April 2019

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The 2016 US presidential election was unforgettable, not least for the raging debate around gender in the run-up. Commentators remarked on Hillary Clinton’s facial expressions, her clothes, her stamina. Along with the surfacing of past comments that Donald Trump had made about women, it’s easy to see why people’s attitudes around gender were top of mind, both before and after the election.

“The 2016 presidential election marked the first time that a woman has been nominated as a major US party presidential candidate, and discussions of gender bias and sexism accounted for a substantial part of the discourse around the presidential election campaign,” says Oriane Georgeac, a PhD candidate at London Business School (LBS). “The election therefore offered a unique opportunity for new research.”

Did the election affect Americans’ expression of gender biased attitudes (in terms of their acceptance and justification of gender inequality)? That’s the subject of a new paper, An Exploratory Investigation of American’s Expression of Gender Bias Before and After the 2016 Presidential Election, co-authored by Georgeac, Aneeta Rattan, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, and Daniel Effron, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS.

The research, funded by LBS’s Leadership Institute, was exploratory – meaning that the researchers did not start out with a particular hypothesis for what would happen.

An opportunity to examine an under-explored aspect of gender bias

Previously, psychological science has shown that gender biases are fairly stable and hard to shift. Where these attitudes come from and what makes people reevaluate and change them is an under-researched topic. “We were interested in investigating whether a one-time yet major historical event, like a presidential election, could have any effect at all on gender attitudes,” says Dr Rattan.

 “This election presented us with a really exciting, unique opportunity,” she continues. “It was the first presidential contest between a man and a woman. Gender was on people’s minds, it was on people’s tongues, it was part of the national discourse. We looked at people’s beliefs before and after the election to take a first step in trying to answer those big questions that exist in research around gender attitudes.”

The authors’ exploratory investigation surveyed two independent samples of US-based Americans a few days prior to and following the US presidential election on November 8, 2016. One group of people (1,098 Americans) answered the survey just before the election and another group (1,192 Americans) shortly after the election.

The Modern Sexism Scale

The survey included multiple measures of gender-related attitudes. The researchers were particularly interested in people’s responses on an established measure in social psychology, the Modern Sexism Scale.

The scale includes statements such as: “Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the US”; “It is easy to understand the anger of women’s groups in America”; and, “Over the past few years, the government and news media have been showing more concern about the treatment of women than is warranted by women’s actual experiences”.

Survey participants how much they agree or disagree on the scale, from 1 (“strongly agree”) to 5 (“strongly disagree”), and some questions are reverse-scored so that greater scores indicate greater modern sexism. The researchers focused on this scale because it was designed to detect subtle shifts in contemporary expressions of gender bias, which makes people more willing to express it than other types of gender bias, such as overt hostility toward women.

Key findings

Overall, there were no shifts in gender bias pre- versus post-election. However, the researchers found that there were differences when considering which candidate participants supported. The main result showed that Trump supporters scored higher on the Modern Sexism Scale following the 2016 US presidential election than they did prior to it, whereas Hillary Clinton supporters’ scores on the scale did not significantly differ post- versus pre-election.

Because this is exploratory work, the researchers then evaluated their data against four different standards of reliability. “We asked ourselves, can we believe it? Is this effect real, or is this something that happened for another reason? These four robustness checks ask different questions of the data,” says Dr Rattan. “While the effect we found was small, across each of these four different perspectives, the answer we kept getting back was, yes, this looks real. Among Trump supporters, their ratings on modern sexism are higher after the election than before.”

Georgeac continues: “Though the effect is small, it is meaningful because this shift in attitudes occurred within a very short period of time. We didn’t know what to expect from the election, if anything, but our research shows that one historical event can actually affect people’s scores on the modern sexism scale.”

To further explore possible consequences of modern sexism, the survey participants were also asked to answer a range of other questions around gender bias. The researchers found that the more Trump supporters endorsed the Modern Sexism Scale post-selection, the less they professed to be bothered by the gender pay gap, the more they overestimated female representation at top levels in politics and business, the less they perceived discrimination against women but the more they perceived against men, and the greater progress they perceived had been achieved towards gender equality in the US.

Interpreting the results

The big question is, what’s behind this shift in attitudes? Did the election outcome change people’s attitudes? Did it make people more willing to express attitudes they already held? Or was there an entirely different mechanism at play?  

“It is possible that Trump supporters’ attitudes may have actually changed following the election,” says Georgeac.

There exists research showing that what leaders say has the potential to shape followers’ attitudes – which seems perfectly likely. Therefore, perhaps Trump supporters simply shifted their position towards what they perceived Trump himself to believe. Or maybe Trump’s election signalled to Trump supporters that gender equality was not a central concern among like-minded others, and they therefore aligned their attitudes with what they perceived to be the attitudes of their political camp. Or maybe they wanted to justify the system in which they live, and in which Trump won and Clinton lost.

Georgeac notes that yet another possibility remains: “Trump supporters may not have changed their gender attitudes post-election. Instead, they may have held these attitudes about women even before the election, but may have felt that expressing them would be seen as socially inappropriate.

In this context, Trump’s election may have been interpreted as a signal that expressing so-called ‘politically incorrect’ views about gender was no longer discrediting. If this is true, Trump supporters may have been simply more willing to publically express their existing, but previously privately held, beliefs after Election Day.” 

Daniel Effron – who has previously found that people are more likely to state an opinion if they feel that opinion is acceptable in their social context – emphasises that understanding which of these possibilities it may be represents the most exciting next step for future research.

“We don’t know if this effect is due to Trump’s victory or Clinton’s loss,” he says. “We don’t know either if this is about Trump’s victory in particular, or if we’d have seen the same result with any male candidate running against any female candidate.

For these reasons, it would be inaccurate to conclude that ‘the President’s election made Trump supporters more sexist’ simply because Trump supporters reported higher scores on the Modern Sexism Scale after November 8, 2016. The truth is we don’t exactly know why this change in scores occurred. We hope additional research will get to the bottom of it.”

Georgeac, Dr Rattan, and Dr Effron together emphasise that their work’s most meaningful contribution may be to spur future research both in the lab and on other historic events to further develop our understanding of when and why historical events shape attitudes between groups.


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