Is Misogyny Holding Western Women Back?

The term misogyny comes from the Greek word μισογυνισμός that translates as hatred of women. Very few would deny that gendered stereotypes and prejudices exist in the western world, but are our societies characterized by hatred of women? Is misogyny the main thing holding women back? A closer look at the data paints a more complicated picture.

Even though western societies are male dominated, in the sense that most of those in positions of power are male, people are more likely to have a positive view of women than of men. According to Alice Eagly and Antonio Mladinic, both men and women are more likely to assign positive characteristics to women (although women have a stronger in-group bias). Other studies have found that people automatically prefer their mothers to their fathers and that they tend to associate the male sex with violence. This phenomenon is often called the women are wonderful effect. How is it possible for a misogynist society, a society that hates women, to have more positive stereotypes about women?

Recently, a British judge garnered media attention  when she said that serial drunk-driver Victoria Parry would have ended up in jail if she were a man. A lot of people don’t know that this kind of paternalistic leniency is quite common in the justice system. Multiple studies of both the UK and the US have found that women are more likely to receive lenient sentences, even when previous convictions are taken into account. These disparities often exist because women are more likely to have to take care of kids and the elderly, so the justice system treats them more leniently to allow them to fulfill their role as caretakers. However, gender stereotypes may also play a role. People are more likely to see men as violent. Women are often viewed as peaceful, nurturing creatures, who can’t do any real harm, therefore they receive lighter sentences even when they do commit crimes.

These attitudes are also often reflected in how we treat domestic violence. Even though the rates of domestic violence against men are high, there have been very few attempts to raise awareness about the phenomenon and many find it hard to believe that a woman would be able to cause serious emotional and physical damage to a man. According to Denise Hines, men who call domestic violence hotlines and shelters often receive little to no help. One abused man said “They laughed at me and told me I must have done something to deserve it if it happened at all.”

In a misogynistic society, the lives of women would be valued less than those of men. However, a recent study suggests the opposite. People are actually more willing to sacrifice men than women. The media also tends to focus disproportionately on white female victims, rather than male or non-white victims, a phenomenon that social scientists have named the missing white woman syndrome. According to a meta-analytic review of social psychological literature on helping behavior, women help strangers less often than men, but receive help more often than them. Finally, a few studies  indicate that people who victimize women tend to receive harsher sentences than those who victimize men.

Why would a woman-hating culture care more about the safety and protection of women, treat female offenders more leniently and associate more positive stereotypes with women? While misogyny exists, western culture is not defined by it. Instead the western world appears to be more benevolently sexist than genuinely misogynist.

Benevolent sexism or attitudes that favor women over men are much more socially accepted than hostile sexism or misogyny. For example, according to a recent study, women, including feminists, prefer men who believe that women should be put on a pedestal. However, benevolent sexism is harmful to the goal of gender equality and the paternalism it often promotes is arguably holding women back. Women are less likely to choose independence and self-reliance if they feel that it would be easier to count on male protection.

Much of the public discourse around the gender pay gap is centered on the implication that women get paid less than men for exactly the same work because of discrimination. However, a closer look at the data paints a more complicated picture. If you compare people working in the same profession and for the same number of hours, the gender pay gap drops significantly. The research on discrimination against women in science also provides complex results: some studies agree that women are discriminated against in hiring, while others show the opposite.

Discrimination against women does exist, but the main reason for the gender pay gap seems to be that women tend to choose different jobs from men and also often work fewer hours. Why do women make different choices from men? One potential explanation is that women prefer working with people, while men prefer working with things. This could explain why there are fewer women in STEM, especially in more gender egalitarian countries where women have greater freedom to choose. Another explanation is that women don’t enter high-paying fields because they feel that they don’t need to. Men are more likely to provide for their female partners than the other way around. Men make more money than women, yet around 80% of purchases are made by women. Having a partner with a steady job is also more important to women than it is to men. As long as many men are willing to pay for women and adopt the provider role, women will be less motivated to choose a high-paying job.

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that women evolved to seek partners with provider potential. However, even if such a predisposition exists, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be minimized. Many women have shown willingness to become the breadwinners themselves when the right motivations exist.

Western society does not appear to be primarily defined by misogynistic attitudes towards women, but by benevolent sexist ones. People who are committed to gender equality ought to consider how the benevolent paternalistic norms of male protection and provision might be leading to an infantilization that is holding women back.

by Maria Kouloglou,