Science

A New Study Ranking States’ Sexism Misunderstands the Insidious Nature of Sexism

A group of protesters stand holding signs that say "A woman's place is in your face," and "Fight for freedom."
Demonstrators hold feminist and pro-choice signs as they protest President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on July 10, 2018 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Is Arkansas the most sexist state in America? A new analysis from a team of economists that set out to create an index measuring sexist attitudes across the U.S. suggests so. (New Hampshire wins the “least sexist” crown.) The research team—Kerwin Kofi Charles, Jonathan Guryan, and Jessica Pan—wanted to measure how “the prevalence of sexist beliefs in the places where women grew up and in the places they worked as adults affected outcomes such as wages, workforce participation, and age at marriage and childbirth,” according to the Washington Post.

To accomplish this goal, the researchers analyzed multiple years of data from the General Social Survey, a biennial survey measuring Americans’ beliefs on a broad range of issues. The researchers focused on eight gender-related questions from the survey, dating back to the 1970s. Several of the questions focused on respondents’ perception of gender roles in politics, such as whether they believed that “Women should take care of running their home and leave running the country up to men,” if they would ever vote for a female president, or whether they believed men are “better suited emotionally” for politics. Other questions focused on respondents’ attitudes towards working mothers versus those who stay at home.

The researchers compiled the responses to these questions and organized them by state. Their conclusion? “Sexism is highest in the Southeast and least extreme in New England and the West,” according to their paper. The states with the highest prevalence of sexist attitudes, in addition to Arkansas, were Utah, Alabama, and West Virginia, and the states with the lowest prevalence, in addition to New Hampshire, were Alaska, Wyoming, and Vermont.

The research culminates in a map visualizing the findings, which the Washington Post organized by a scale ranging from “Less Sexism” to “More Sexism.” But ranking states this way just doesn’t feel terribly useful. (What does “less sexism” even mean, practically?) The entire display strangely collapses sexism into a one-dimensional framework, making it seem as if you could move from Kentucky to Illinois and dramatically lower your sexism exposure.

A map of of the United States showing the country's "mean overall sexism," with each state color-coded based on its ranking.
A map of of the United States showing the country’s “mean overall sexism.”
Kerwin Kofi Charles, Jonathan Guryan, and Jessica Pan (Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics)

Sure, this kind of research might help us evaluate the institutional and interpersonal barriers to gender equality in the U.S., and researchers should keep doing it. But this is one of those situations where it’s critical to remember that averages deduced in population-level research are never really indicative of lived experience of individuals, and the general public doesn’t have to pay much attention to them. And besides, the questions asked in this study only touch on a few facets of women’s lives. They do not necessarily indicate how these attitudes impact women differently based on their race, class, sexual orientation, religion, or other identities.

Ranking states based on such a broad topic risks obscuring a lot of meaningful nuance and context without actually telling us that much about how sexism operates in different places across the country. Moreover, it can unintentionally reinforce oversimplified ideas about social progress that tend to position the North and South as binary opposites—enlightened versus backwards. We should focus instead on comparisons of how state laws meaningfully affect the lives of women, in areas including, but not limited to, women’s reproductive health care access, maternal mortality rates, reports of gender-based violence and sexual misconduct, gender parity in state legislatures, and the wage gap.