Most women in the national sample of roughly 4,600, however, say discrimination still makes their lives harder — 63 percent, while 34 percent say otherwise. Researchers conducted the survey in July.
Political beliefs skew the numbers: Republican men and women, for example, are far more likely to say sexism doesn’t stand in the way of America’s women. A full three-quarters of Republican men say such discrimination has vanished.
Democrats are more likely to think the opposite:
Age also appears to play a role in how respondents view gender-specific challenges. Among Democrats, men under age 35 are most likely to say discrimination against women has vanished — perhaps not an unsurprising finding, considering women now outpace men in college enrollment and degree attainment.
Among Republican men, opinion doesn't vary as much by age, with men ages 35 to 49 least likely to believe women still face obstacles.
Peter Glick, a social sciences professor at Lawrence University who co-designed Northwestern University’s first course on diversity management, said America's men aren't necessarily in denial. The women around them, he said, probably appear to be doing quite well. Younger women, more than ever before, are launching their lives on visibly equal footing.
The Pew respondents, he said, might be equating sexism with behavior rampant in the Mad Men era: groping at work, the near-universal presence of men in upper roles, a woman's inability to obtain a credit card without her husband's signature.
“They might be thinking about the more overt or obvious forms of sexism," he said, "but it comes out today in subtle, insidious ways. Look at the top of the hierarchy in just about anything and it looks more like the '50s than a lot of people understand."
Women hold just 4 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, which tracks gender in leadership. At those firms, 19 percent of directors are women.
Women, meanwhile, make up just 19 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives, Catalyst found. They comprise 20 percent of Senate seats. And though 57 percent of American college students are women, only a quarter of college presidents are women, the American Council on Education reports.
Perhaps the Pew survey's biggest limitation is it didn't define what, exactly, sexism is. Sexism is not just cat-calling on the street. It can be a boss unconsciously assuming a young woman would prefer to have a baby than take an overseas assignment, for example. It can be a gut feeling that something is just off about a woman in power, something about her voice or hair.
The survey also didn't ask if men feel like the discrimination affects them. As women gain ground in school and at work, Glick said, men might feel like they're losing it.
“There’s this tendency as social change takes place — you see it with whites, too — the privileged group says, ‘We’re the ones being discriminated against,’” he said. “Any policies that favor minority groups or women, there’s backlash: ‘They’re getting special breaks, and we’re getting screwed over.’”
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