America could elect its first woman president next year, but even that would be a hollow sign of progress in a country mired in gender inequity.
The Supreme Court may well gut Roe v. Wade. Access to abortion and contraception has regressed dramatically, and clinics face increasing intimidation. The pay gap is stubbornly broad. Campuses struggle with disturbingly high rates of sexual assault, and domestic violence is all too common.
America seems a long way from becoming a society in which young men and women have equal opportunities to succeed. And yet data suggest that many Americans—disproportionately men—believe America already is such a society.
To analyze attitudes about gender, I turned to the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, frequently used by academics to explore public opinion.
It has an impressive sample of young people—1,392 respondents between the ages of 17 and 34, including 647 and 745 women—and a battery of questions that relate to gender equity. Three in particular were revealing.
The first was about traditional gender norms: Do you think it is better, worse, or makes no difference for the family as a whole if the man works outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family?
Young men and women had roughly the same attitudes about that—if antiquated ones. About a third of each said it was better for the woman to stay home.
The next two questions were more direct. And the answers suggest that men are blind to continuing structural inequities and perceptions about women in society that restrict success and opportunity.
The survey asked whether men or women have more opportunity for achievement. Almost half of young men—47%—say opportunities are equal, while only 37% of women think so. Meanwhile, 62% of women say men have a better shot at achievement. Only 47% of men agree.
The gap is even wider on whether men have “many more” opportunities.
Another blunt question asked by the survey: How serious a problem is discrimination against women in the United States?
Young men are more likely to say that it’s not a problem at all: 11% of men think that, compared with just 5% of women. And men are more likely than women to say that it’s just a minor problem.
The gaps are far smaller for Democrats than Republicans. Interestingly, when I examined only young people with college educations, the gaps are even larger than they are in the full sample.
College men may see successful women on campus and perceive that women have more opportunities, while college-educated women appear more attuned to persistent discrimination.
These tensions are often reflected in the campus debates of the past few years.
“Many men I've worked with truly believe that our campus has moved beyond gender bias,” Roberta Barnett, a senior at Columbia University and president of the Panhellenic Council, which governs the sororities at the university, told me. “But if you ask female members of our community and even many student administrators, the role of implicit bias against women is both pervasive and actively felt.”
Barnett cites frequent slights about women's appearance at official meetings and the dearth of women in high positions of student politics.
Other, more recent sources also support these findings.
A Pew poll from 2014 finds that young men are less likely than their fathers to say that it’s easier for men to reach the highest echelons of business and politics, but that there are more than 10-point gaps between young men and women. These gaps remain among Democratic men and women.
By almost 20-point gaps, women are more likely to say that women in political positions (47% and 28%) and high-level business positions (52% and 33%) are held to higher standards than men.
The Hillary factor
I also examined how young men compared with older men, and found that young men are far less likely to say that it’s better for a woman to stay home (65% of men over 65, compared with 36% of men 17 to 34).
But young men were also far more likely to say that men and women have equal opportunities (39% of men over 65, compared with 48% of young men).
I also examined the issue of abortion and found very little difference across age groups: Young men are no more likely to endorse the view that “By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.”
The numbers are stubbornly sticky. And there isn’t much reason for optimism: Young men are slightly more likely to endorse the view that abortion should be banned altogether — 14% of young men say so, compared with 8% of men over 65.
As I’ve written, a large literature from both political science and psychology suggests that the election of Barack Obama led many Americans to accept the narrative of a post-racial society and ignore the continued presence of institutional racism and structural disparities.
These results suggest that the nomination and possible election of Hillary Clinton, combined with the already increasing presence of women at the highest echelons of society, may lead men (and some prominent women) to believe that there are no longer structural barriers to full equality.
It already appears to be happening. Young men are far less likely to endorse the explicitly sexist view that women should remain in the house with children. But young men are also far more likely than their fathers to say that men and women have equal opportunities in society.
Young men may already see a post-gender society that simply doesn’t exist.
NOTE: These questions sometimes include a range of possible answers—in some of the charts I have condensed the answers in order to better visualize the data.
Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos Action.