In late May, when the United States had more than 500,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and was nearing 100,000 deaths, President Trump refused to don a mask in public during a visit to a mask factory in Michigan. The president and other conservative elites later mocked presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing one during a public appearance on Memorial Day. A few weeks later, podcast host Joe Rogan joked about people who wore masks, using a misogynistic slur.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded to Trump during an interview with CNBC by imploring viewers to take proper precautions and declaring that “real men wear masks.” The phrase was repeated as a hashtag by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), accompanied by a picture of her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, wearing a surgical mask and his signature cowboy hat.
All this suggests that gendered ideology may be shaping coronavirus-related attitudes and behaviors, particularly public actions such as wearing a mask. Indeed, when Trump finally wore a mask in public during his visit last week to Walter Reed hospital, Republican congressional candidate KW Miller of Florida tweeted, “I don’t wear face masks, but POTUS is the only man who can pull it off and still look intensely masculine.”
Using weekly survey data from a large poll fielded between March and June, my recently published research shows that those with more-sexist attitudes are less concerned about covid-19, less likely to take precautions such as washing their hands and wearing masks, less likely to support state and local policies aimed at slowing the spread of the disease, and ultimately more likely to report contracting the coronavirus than those with less-sexist attitudes.
How I did my research
My data comes from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, which has conducted large surveys of more than 6,000 American adults every week since July 2019. The data is quota-sampled and weighted to reflect the national adult population.
In late March, as the novel coronavirus began to spread across the United States, the survey started asking Americans about their views of and experiences with the virus. In all, by mid-June, over 100,000 Americans had answered the coronavirus questions.
The survey also asked questions about gender attitudes that I combined into a single measure of sexism. These questions asked respondents how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements. Those included two well-known questions for measuring what researchers call “old-fashioned sexism” — whether they would be more comfortable having a man as a boss than a woman and whether women are just as capable as thinking logically as men. They also included two questions designed to measure what researchers call “modern sexism” — whether increased opportunities for women have significantly improved the quality of life in the United States and whether women who complain about harassment often cause more problems than they solve.
To better understand the relationship between sexism and coronavirus attitudes and behaviors, I use regression models that allow me to account for other factors that may also shape respondents’ attitudes, such as race, gender, partisanship, ideology, age, income, education and population density.
The link between sexism and the coronavirus pandemic
Political scientists’ research has found that sexism has increasingly influenced American politics, particularly during Trump’s campaign and presidency. Similarly, researchers have shown that gendered norms are correlated with destructive health behaviors such as denying weakness or vulnerability and dismissing any need for help.
Even after accounting for the link between sexism and partisanship in the Trump era, my models suggest that there is a strong relationship between sexism and responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
First, I find that only about 40 percent of those with more-sexist views report being “very concerned” about the coronavirus, compared with 66 percent of those with less-sexist views — even after controlling for partisanship, ideology and education, among other factors.
Similar patterns emerge when analyzing who is taking proper precautions to stop the collective spread of the coronavirus. Compared with those who are less sexist, sexist individuals were between 17 and 23 percentage points less likely to say they are staying home, wearing a mask, washing their hands or abstaining from visiting family and friends.
Sexist individuals were also more opposed to state and local policies aimed at slowing the collective spread of the coronavirus. The most sexist were about 20 percentage points less likely to “strongly support” stay-at-home orders, 30 percentage points less likely to support mandatory testing for fevers when entering buildings and nearly 40 percentage points less likely to support governments encouraging people to stay in their homes and avoid socializing.
Not surprisingly, those highest in sexism are far more likely to report getting sick with the coronavirus. Sexist individuals are nearly 25 percentage points more likely to report getting sick with the coronavirus than those at the lowest end of the scale.
What does this mean for public policy?
Those crafting public health messaging may wish to depoliticize and combat any perceived “femininity” of protective measures — aiming for more Dick Cheney and less Joe Rogan. And it wouldn’t hurt for Trump to continue wearing a mask in public, either.
Tyler Reny (@tylerreny) received his PhD in political science from UCLA in 2020 and is a postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis.