To measure the prevalence of sexist beliefs, the researchers drew on eight questions on attitudes toward gender issues that have been part of the survey since the 1970s. Among other things, the questions measure agreement with statements such as “Women should take care of running their home and leave running the country up to men” and “A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.”
They also ask respondents if they would ever vote for a female president and whether men are “better suited emotionally” for politics.
The researchers combined responses to these questions and summarized them at the state level, creating a nationwide index of sexist attitudes (they previously used a similar method to measure the prevalence of racist beliefs). Mapping those numbers, above, yields a comprehensive picture of the geography of American sexism.
“Sexism is highest in the Southeast and least extreme in New England and the West,” Charles and his colleagues write. “The figure shows that there is substantial variation in mean sexism across states within each geographic region of the country.”
Prevalence of sexist attitudes is highest in Arkansas, followed by Utah, Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee. On the flip side, New Hampshire residents demonstrate the lowest levels of sexism, followed by Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont and Connecticut.
It’s tempting to explain away these differences as a function of say, political beliefs: Is this just a measure of conservative attitudes toward gender and family?
A closer look at the map reveals this is not the case. Some of the least sexist states, such as Wyoming and Alaska, also tend to be the most reliably Republican in presidential elections. On the other hand, some Democratic strongholds, such as Illinois and New York, end up in the middle of the pack. That suggests these questions are measuring differences in beliefs not typically reflected in the ubiquitous red/blue framework dominating much of the national discourse today.
According to the research by Charles and his colleagues, these state-level distinctions can have significant impacts on women’s lives.
“Sexism in a woman’s state of birth and in her current state of residence both lower her wages and likelihood of labor force participation, and lead her to marry and bear her first child sooner,” they find. Even more striking, the prevalence of sexism in a woman’s birth state seems to affect her later earnings and outcomes even if she moves to a place with less sexism.
“Sexism where she was born, which we call background sexism, affects a woman’s outcomes even after she is an adult living in another market through the influence of norms that she internalized during her formative years,” the study finds.
One piece of good news is that the General Social Survey data shows sexist attitudes are declining across the board. Nationwide, the share of Americans who say men are “better suited” for politics than women has fallen from 48 percent in 1977 to 18 percent in 2016, for instance.
But the state-level differences persist, and they have been remarkably consistent over time, Charles and his colleagues find. “There happens to be substantial stability in cross-state differences in sexism over time, even as sexism has declined everywhere,” they write.