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Trump Voters Have High Levels of Hostile Sexism

Groundbreaking research on sexism and the 2016 election tells a chilling tale.

Social and political backdrop

It’s no surprise to most readers that sexism plays a role in politics and leadership choices. Men have a decided advantage over women, and men often abuse that power and that edge in reprehensible ways of which we are becoming more aware with every passing day. Yet, in spite of long-standing awareness of the destructive and inequitable impact of sexism in politics, business and personal relations, we tolerate the status quo on a collective level, although there is a growing momentum to change things once and for all, reflected in the development of advocacy groups and legislation, including the formation of Ultraviolet and the example of Iceland’s recent passage of equal-pay law. Perhaps one silver lining of the assault on American egalitarian ideals as embodied by Trump’s victory is a backlash of activism and exposure of and renewed attention to long-standing abuses, for American and the world.

New Research

A ground-breaking study by Ratliff and colleagues (2017), with the support of Harvard University’s Project Implicit, shines a bright light on American voters preference from Trump over Clinton as a function of sexism, political ideology, gender, and racist and xenophobic attitudes. Using the theory of Ambivalent Sexism, researchers studied over 2800 American voters before and after the election in order to determine to what extent sexist attitudes influenced the election — and therefore are shaping our currently political and socioeconomic reality as we have moved into what for many is the Bizarro-World of Trumpland, and for others remains a restitution of long-standing misguided liberalism.

What is the Theory of Ambivalent Sexism?

Ambivalent Sexism Theory (Glick & Fisk, 1996), makes the claim that sexism exists in two fundamental forms, hostile and benevolent. Benevolent sexism is a paternalistic view in which women are seen as weak beings who need to be cherished and taken care of, analogous to children. This brand of sexism reduces empowerment and pushes women to the side in favor of stronger, tougher men who are charged with protecting the weak. Hostile sexism views women as the enemy of men, and views women as waging a battle to wrest control from men through sex, trapping men in relationships, and through feminist politics. Both forms of sexism prevent women from advancement in multiple life areas, and both forms of sexism can be held by anyone, though men are more likely to be sexist on average.

The current research

Ratliff and colleagues conducted three studies, the first running for three weeks before the election, and the others after the election to look at actual voting preferences and factors including political idealogy, sexism, and dislike of minority groups and immigrants.

Study 1

The first study ran from August to September of 2016, with 550 U.S. citizens, 64 percent women and 80 percent white, average age of 38 years. Measures included Political Ideology, Benevolent and Hostile Sexism, Attitudes toward Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and voting intention. Statistical analysis controlled for demographic factors, political beliefs, and both forms of sexism to determine whether any factors significantly predicted candidate preference and voting intention.

They found that on average men were more conservative than women, and that men tend to be more sexist than women, as well. They found that gender was not correlated with support of Trump. Importantly, regardless of politics and gender, they found that both hostile sexism and benevolent sexism predicted more positive attitudes toward Trump. Likewise, controlling for other factors, hostile and benevolent sexism predicted negative attitudes toward Clinton. After controlling for political attitudes, in this pre-election sample, only hostile sexism correlated with a lack of support for Clinton.

In terms of voting intention, hostile sexism was correlated with voting for Trump over Clinton, and effect which persisted controlling for political ideology but which was not significant after controlling for gender and interactions between gender and hostile sexism. This may be because this arm of the research looked at intention to vote, which has an inherent uncertainty; in Studies 2 and 3 (discussed below), hostile sexism was significant after controlling for all variables. Regardless, people intending to vote for Trump over Clinton were significantly higher on hostile sexism and benevolent sexism, which a greater effect for hostile sexism than benevolent sexism.

Study 2

Study 2 included 1192 U.S. citizens, 66 percent women, 75 percent white, average age of 34.5 years. It ran from November 10 until November 16th, allowing for enough time to include enough voters from each camp to reach sufficient statistical power. Again, researchers measured political ideology, benevolent and hostile sexism, and correlated these factors with preference from Trump or Clinton and reported actual voting behavior.

They found that hostile sexism predicted more positive attitudes toward Trump and more negative attitudes toward Clinton. Benevolent sexism, however, was not related to attitudes toward either candidate in general, but was a significant predictor of negative attitudes toward Clinton when taking political beliefs into account; conservatives who disapproved of Clinton were more likely to have higher benevolent sexism, regardless of gender.

In terms of reported actual voting behavior, gender did not predict voting behavior, but hostile sexism more than doubled the odds of voting for Trump. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, did not significantly influence the chances of voting for Trump over Clinton. People who voted from Trump were higher on both forms of sexism. After controlling for all factors, hostile sexism alone remained a predictor of voting for Trump.

Study 3

Study 3 was similar to study two, but included measures of attitudes toward black people, white people, Muslims, Hispanics and immigrants along with politics, gender and sexism in looking at preference for Trump or Clinton, and voting decision. There were 1074 participants, 61 percent women and 73 percent white, average age of 40.6 years. The study ran from June 29 to August 10, 2017, again to allow for a sufficient number of voters to complete the study. In addition to looking at the same factors as study 2, they found that attitudes toward minority groups and immigrants were statistically similar enough to include one variable, the Attitudes toward Minorities scale.

Again, researchers found that hostile sexism was correlated with positive attitudes toward Trump, whereas benevolent sexism was not, even after controlling for gender, politics and attitudes toward minority groups. Men favored Trump more than women in this sample, but gender and sexism were not significantly correlated. Likewise, after controlling for all variables, hostile sexism (but not gender or benevolent sexism) was related to negative attitudes toward Clinton. Furthermore, hostile sexism predicted voting for Trump, but benevolent sexism did not, controlling for gender, minority attitudes and political belief. Trump voters were significantly higher in both hostile and benevolent sexism than Clinton voters.

In terms of attitude toward minority groups, Trump voters were significantly less positive than Clinton voters, and Trump voters favored White people more than Clinton voters.

Further considerations

The results of this ground-breaking research may not come as a surprise to more liberal readers, who presume that sexism played, and continues to play, a pivotal and under-recognized role in every aspect of human relations, from the sociopolitical to the personal, from the workplace to family relations, and on a global level. Hostile sexism is a scourge, one which was essentially in determining the 2016 presidential outcome, and one which will continue to plague our society and harm our children, until we do something about it. Understanding the role of benevolent sexism is equally important, including clarifying the seductive yet destructive effects of adopting a seemingly benign paternalistic attitude toward women.

The dominance of men and implicit sexist attitudes have shaped human history, and we are again at a choice-point. Sexism is one crucial factor, and a well-storied one, but it is important to remember that all kinds of bias result in disparity and suffering. While maintaining the status quo may be the path of least resistance, and change frightening, costly and painful, if we want to strive toward ideals of freedom and equality, we have to be willing to take the necessary steps, enduring difficulty to gain reward.

The current study is game-changing because it identifies the pivotal role of hostile sexism in influencing the outcome of the 2016 election. While both forms of sexism are crucial to address, making the key distinction between hostile and benevolent sexism is necessary to pull out the roots of sexism because we must target different brands of sexism with different approaches. It’s important to note that men and women (and presumably transgendered people as well) can be afflicted with any form of sexism, as sexism is institutionalized. We need to better understand the impact of other forms of hostile and benevolent “-isms”, as well, in order to continue to make progress. This will take deep personal soul-searching and challenging candor with ourselves and one another. It is only through education, reform, grassroots action, and legislation, acting on multiple layers of society, that we can bring about the better world which many envision.

Originally published at

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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