Recently I served as a reviewer for a research article that had been submitted to a journal for publication. Without going into too much detail as to why, the authors of this paper wanted to control for people’s attitudes towards casual sex when conducting their analysis. They thought that it was possible people who were more sexually-permissive when it comes to infidelity might respond to certain scenarios differently than those who were less sexually-permissive. If you were the sensible type of researcher, you might do something like ask your participants to indicate on some scale as to how acceptable or unacceptable they think sexually infidelity is, then. The authors of this particular paper opted for a different, altogether stranger route: they noted that people’s attitudes towards infidelity correlate (imperfectly) with their political ideology (i.e., whether they consider themselves to be liberals or conservatives). So, rather than ask participants directly about how acceptable infidelity is (what they actually wanted to know), they asked participants about their political ideology and used that as a control instead.
”People who exercise get tired, so we measured how much people napped to assess physical fitness”
This example is by no means unique; psychology researchers frequently try to ask questions about topic X in the hopes of understanding something about topic Y. This can be acceptable at times, specifically when topic Y is unusually difficult – but not impossible – to study directly. After all, if topic Y is impossible to directly study, then one obviously cannot say that studying topic X tells you something about Y with much confidence, as you would have no way of assessing the relationship between X and Y to begin with. Assuming that the relationship between X and Y has been established and it is sufficiently strong and Y is unusually difficult to study directly, then there’s a good, practical case to be made for using X instead. When that is done, however, it should always be remembered that you aren’t actually studying what you’d like to study, so it’s important to not get carried away with the interpretation of your results.
This brings us nicely to the topic of research on sexism. When people hear the word “sexism” a couple things come to mind: someone who believes one sex is (or should be) – socially, morally, legally, psychologically, etc – inferior to the other, or worth less; someone who wouldn’t want to hire a member of one sex for a job (or intentionally pays them less if they did) strictly because of that variable regardless of their qualifications; someone who inherently dislikes members of one sex. While this list is by no means exhaustive, I suspect things like these are probably the prototypical examples of sexism; some kind of explicit, negative attitude about people because of their sex per se that directly translates into behavior. Despite this, people who research sexism don’t usually ask about such matters directly, as far as I’ve seen. To be clear, they easily could ask such questions assessing such attitudes in straightforward manners (in fact, they used to do just that with measures like the “Attitudes Towards Women Scale” in the 1970s), but they do not. As I understand it, the justification for not asking about such matters directly is because it has become more difficult to find people who actually express such views (Loo & Thorpe, 1998). As attitudes had already become markedly less sexist from 1972 to 1998, one can only guess at how much more change occurred from then to now. In short, it’s becoming rare to find blatant sexists anymore, especially if you’re asking college students.
Many researchers interpret that difficulty as being the result of people still holding sexist attitudes but either (a) are not willing express them publicly for fear of condemnation, or (b) are not consciously aware that they hold such views. As such, researchers like to ask about questions about “Modern Sexism” or “Ambivalent Sexism“; they maintain the word “sexism” in their scales, but they begin to ask about things which are not what people first think of when they hear the term. They no longer ask about explicitly sexist attitudes. Therein lies something of a problem, though: if what you really want to know is whether people hold particular sexist beliefs or attitudes, you need some way of assessing those attitudes directly in order to determine that other questions which don’t directly ask about that sexism will accurately reflect it. However, if such a method of assessing those beliefs accurately, directly, and easily does exist, then it seems altogether preferable to use that method instead. In short, just ask about the things you want to ask about.
“We wanted to measure sugar content, so we assessed how much fruit the recipe called for”
If you continue on with using an alternate measure – like using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI), rather than the Attitudes towards Women Scale – then you really should restrict your interpretations to things you’re actually asking about. As a quick example, let’s consider the ASI, which is made up of a hostile and benevolent sexism component. Zell et al (2016) summarize the scale as follows:
“Hostile sexism is an adversarial view of gender relations in which women are perceived as seeking control over men. Benevolent sexism is a subjectively positive view of gender relations in which women are perceived as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored; as necessary companions to make a man complete; but as weak and therefore best relegated to traditional gender roles (e.g., homemaker).”
In other words, the benevolent scale measures the extent to which women are viewed as children: incapable of making their own decisions and, as such, in need of protection and provisioning by men. The hostile scale measures the extent to which men don’t trust women and view them as enemies. Glick & Fiske (1996) claim that ”...hostile and benevolent sexism…combine notions of the exploited group’s lack of competence to exercise structural power with self-serving “benevolent” justifications.” However, not a single measure on either the hostile or benevolent sexism inventory actually asks about female competencies or whether women ought to be restricted socially.
To make this explicit, let’s consider the questions Zell et al (2016) used to assess both components. In terms of hostile sexism, participants were asked to indicate their agreement with the following three statements:
- Women seek power by gaining control over men
- Women seek special favors under the guise of equality
- Women exaggerate their problems at work
There are a few points to make about these questions: first, they are all clearly true to some extent. I say that because these are behaviors that all kinds of people engage in. If these behaviors are not specific to one sex – if both men and women exaggerate their problems at work – then agreement with the idea that women do does not stop me from believing men do this as well and, accordingly, does not necessarily track any kind of sexist belief (the alternative, I suppose, is to believe that women never exaggerate problems, which seems unlikely). If the questions are meant to be interpreted as a relative statement (e.g., “women exaggerate their problems at work more than men do”), then that statement needs to first be assessed empirically as true or false before you can say that endorsement of it represents sexism. If women actually do tend to exaggerate problems at work more (a matter that is quite difficult to objectively determine because of what the term exaggerate means), then agreement with the statement just means you accurately perceive reality; not that you’re a sexist.
More to the point, however, none of the measures ask about what the researchers interpret them to mean: women seeking special favors does not imply they are incompetent or unfit to hold positions outside of the home, nor does it imply that one views gender relations primarily as adversarial. If those views are really what a researcher is trying to get at, then they ought to just ask about them directly. A similar story emerges for the benevolent questions:
- Women have a quality of purity few men possess
- Men should sacrifice to provide for women
- Despite accomplishment, men are incomplete without women
Again, I see no mention of women’s competency, ability, intelligence, or someone’s endorsement of strict gender roles. Saying that men ought to behave altruistically towards women in no way implies that women can’t manage without men’s help. When a man offers to pay for an anniversary dinner (a behavior which I have seen labeled sexist before), he is usually not doing so because he feels his partner is incapable of paying anymore than my helping a friend move suggests I view them as a helpless child.
“Our saving you from this fire implies you’re unfit to hold public office”
The argument can, of course, be made that scores on the ASI are related to the things these researchers actually want to measure. Indeed, Glick & Fiske (1996) made that very argument: they report that the hostile sexism scores (controlling for the benevolent scores) did correlate with “Old Fashion Sexism” and “Attitudes towards Women” scores (rs = .43 and .60, respectively, bearing in mind that was almost 20 years ago and these attitudes are changing). However, the correlations between benevolent sexism scores and these sexist attitudes were effectively zero (rs = -.03 and .04, respectively). In other words, it appears that people endorse these statements for reasons that have nothing at all to do with whether they view women as weak, or stupid, or any other pejorative you might throw out there, and their responses may tell you nothing at all about their opinion concerning gender roles. If you want to know about those matters, then ask about them. In general, it’s fine to speculate about what your results might mean – how they can best be interpreted – but an altogether easier path is to simply ask about such matters directly and reduce the need for pointless speculation.
References: Glick, P. & Fiske, S. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.
Loo, R. & Thorpe, K. (1998). Attitudes towards women’s roles in society: A replication after 20 years. Sex Roles, 39, 903-912.
Zell, E., Strickhouser, J., Lane, T., & Teeter, S. (2016). Mars, Venus, or Earth? Sexism and the exaggeration of psychological gender differences. Sex Roles, 75, 287-300.