Does Having Daughters Make Men Less Sexist?

Male politicians insist that they cannot be sexist because they have daughters

Posted Jan 20, 2019

When male politicians are accused of inappropriate sexual behavior or sexism they often defend themselves by stating that the charge is simply impossible —after all, the reasoning goes, they have daughters (or sisters) themselves. This defense strikes the public as a weak defense, but one that nonetheless resonates at some level.

Might there be some merit in this notion? A recent large scale, nationally representative study in the U.K. suggests that that the answer might be “yes”. In a nutshell, the authors were interested in the extent to which respondents endorsed the following item: “A husband’s job is to earn money; a wife’s job is to look after the home and family”. A higher score on this item, therefore, would indicate the endorsement of a more traditional view of gender roles, one that arguably keeps power and status away from women and in the hands of men.

The results indicate that men with daughters hold less traditional views on gender roles. It is important to note that these average-level effects become non-significant once several covariates are added to the statistical model. However, when examining the effects at specific age groups, an interesting and more robust pattern emerges: men with daughters in the 6-10 year old or 11+ age brackets endorsed significantly less traditional gender roles. In contrast, men with daughters aged 5 years and younger did not. This is consistent with the notion that the more contact with their own daughters, and the more that their daughters have contact with the outside world, the more that men want women overall to be able to be independent and self sufficient should they choose to be.

Interestingly, having daughters had little (or inconsistent) effects on women. It appears that the “mighty girl” effect shapes the way that men (not women) think about gender roles for their offspring. 

This study offers an interesting insight into how men think about the role of women in society. But in many ways there remain many open questions, and we need to interpret such data with some hesitation. For instance, other research suggests that having daughters makes both men and women more Republican (vs. Democrat) in voting preferences, and that having sisters makes men more conservative (vs. liberal) and likely to vote Republican. Yet those on the political right (vs. left) tend, on average, to hold views about women that are more traditional and/or sexist (e.g., Rothwell et al., 2019). How to reconcile such conflicting findings? It is worth noting that the study on the “mighty girl” effect was based on U.K. samples, whereas the ones mentioned in the present paragraph are based on American samples. But the differences are likely due to more than simple culture differences of this sort.  There is clearly a need for additional data on this topic. We particularly need studies that track the same men across time (i.e., longitudinal studies).

For now, it seems premature to let men “off” from their sexist attitudes and behavior simply because they point to the fact that they have daughters. Besides, men can behave in very sexist ways toward the daughters of other people while still rationalizing why their own daughter deserves to be treated with respect. We should be cautious when we hear people insist that they cannot be racist because they have a black friend, or cannot be sexist because they have a daughter. Racism and sexism are about power and control at a group level; throughout history men and White people have had little difficulty denying an entire group power while at the same time allowing exceptions with regard to specific individuals from that group.

References

Borrell-Porta et al. (2019). The ‘mighty girl’ effect: does parenting daughters alter attitudes towards gender norms? Oxford Economic Papers, 71(1), 2019, 25–46 doi: 10.1093/oep/gpy063

Rothwell, V., Hodson, G., & Prusaczyk, E. (2019). Why pillory Hillary? Testing the endemic sexism hypothesis regarding the 2016 U.S. election. Personality and Individual Differences, 138, 106-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.09.034

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