Equal Rights for Women? Survey Says: Yes, but …

June 30, 2010 / By VICTORIA SHANNON

People around the world say they firmly support equal rights for men and women, but many still believe men should get preference when it comes to good jobs, higher education or even in some cases the simple right to work outside the home, according to a new survey of 22 nations.

The poll, conducted in April and May by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project in association with the International Herald Tribune, shows that in both developing countries and wealthy ones, there is a pronounced gap between a belief in the equality of the sexes and how that translates into reality.

In nations where equal rights are already mandated, women seem stymied by a lack of real progress, the poll found.

“Women in the United States and Europe are shouldering major responsibilities at home and at work simultaneously, and this makes for stress and a low quality of life,” said Prof. Herminia Ibarra, co-author of the 2010 Corporate Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum.

The opinions of the French, in particular, are emblematic of the uneven drive for equality of the sexes.

One hundred percent of French women and 99 percent of French men backed the idea of equal rights. Yet 75 percent also said that men there had a better life, by far the highest percentage in any of the countries in which polling took place.

Why do people in France, which provides generous state care for new mothers and toddlers, feel so far from having achieved gender equality?

“Because they are, at least in terms of economic participation,” said Professor Ibarra, who teaches organizational behavior at Insead, the international business school based in Fontainebleau, France. “There are still very few women running large organizations, and business culture remains resolutely a boys’ club.”

Indeed, the United States and Germany reported an especially strong gap between the sexes on whether enough has been done to give women equality. Of those who believe in equal rights, many more American and German men believe their nations have made the right amount of changes for women, while many more women than men in those countries think more action is required.

“When you’re left out of the club, you know it,” said Prof. Jacqui True, an expert in gender relations and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. “When you’re in the club, you don’t see what the problem is.”

The rising giants of China and India, together with Indonesia and Jordan, were the four other countries where a majority of equal-rights supporters think most of the adjustments necessary to establish equality have already been made.

In telephone and face-to-face interviews, the Pew Center found that equality of the sexes was by vast majorities a goal for men and women alike.

In 13 of the countries, more than 90 percent of the respondents said they supported equal rights; in every other country except Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Indonesia and Nigeria, more than 75 percent backed gender equality. Nigeria, in fact, was the only surveyed country where more than half (54 percent) said women should not have equal rights; 45 percent of respondents favored equal rights.

In addition, only in Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan did fewer than 80 percent of the respondents say that women should be able to work outside the home. Even in those three countries, a majority said they supported women’s right to work.

Showing how widely accepted the notion of equality has become, even more men than women in Britain and Japan supported equal rights. (Scandinavian countries, which often score highest on gender equality, were not part of the survey.)

Yet few countries consider that equality achieved. Only in three countries did a majority of those surveyed say that women and men have achieved a comparable quality of life: Mexico (56 percent), Indonesia (55 percent) and Russia (52 percent). In six other countries, a sizable ratio — 40 to 50 percent — said they believed that men’s and women’s lives were equally good.

In Poland, by contrast, a majority (55 percent) said men had the upper hand. And in another five countries as diverse as India, Spain and Nigeria, 40 to 49 percent said men retained the higher quality of life. But France’s 75 percent led the list.

Only in South Korea (49 percent) and Japan (47 percent) did more people say women are better off than say men are, or that they are the same. It may be that men there “resent being married to their company, and also that there are fewer expectations of women,” Professor True said. “But that’s not equality.”

The variable assessment of gender equality suggests, according to the Pew Research Center report, that “while egalitarian sentiments are pervasive, they are less than robust.”

Most of the countries where people said men and women had equally good lives, Professor True said, “are only beginning to question and challenge gender discrimination and injustice, which have been taken for granted and seen as legitimate.”

“There is a lower consciousness of the gender differences there because men have always dominated,” she added. “Women have not had the opportunity to band together to challenge the power of men.”

Professor True, who is the author of five books on international relations and gender politics, is also head of the feminist theory and gender studies section of the International Studies Association, an organization of scholars and publisher of academic journals.

The surveys were conducted nationwide in all countries except China, India and Pakistan, where samples were disproportionately urban. Margins of sampling error are plus or minus three to five percentage points.

Although government mandates for equal education and job opportunities are frequently the means to gender equality, some nations that uphold the principle of equality also have sizable constituencies who would not give women the same rights to schooling and jobs.

Half or more of those asked in India, Pakistan and Egypt say a university education is more important for a boy; in China, Japan, Jordan, Poland and Nigeria, that number was at least one-third.

In some places where a boy’s education is favored, women had opinions far different from those of men. In Egypt, for instance, a solid 60 percent of men said boys were more entitled to that education, while an equally solid 60 percent of women disagreed. The gender gap was similar in Jordan and Pakistan.

“A lot of families are too poor to send all of their kids to school,” Professor Ibarra said. In India, for example, social groups are trying to organize day care for families so that daughters do not have to stay home and care for younger siblings while the sons go off to school.

Likewise, a strong core in several countries said men had more right to a job than women. More than 50 percent in 10 of the 22 countries said that when jobs are scarce, they should go to men. “If we think that it’s a growable pie, equality is fine,” Professor Ibarra commented. “If we think it’s a limited pie, it’s not.”

In India, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia and China, this belief was most widespread, while respondents in the United States, Britain, Spain, Germany and France most strongly disagreed that men should be preferred for jobs when they are hard to find.

Yet the belief that men should not have the edge does not translate into economic reality in many of the same countries. In France, Germany, Poland and India, at least 80 percent of those surveyed said men still got more opportunities than women for jobs that pay well, even when woman were as qualified.

What may be more surprising is that the respondents were not unanimous about men getting the good jobs. The inequity in well-paying jobs, Professor Ibarra said, “is absolutely true.”

“That’s not even an opinion,” the professor said. “You could find hard facts to support that anywhere you look.”

Professor True said it often took two generations before reality caught up with changes in attitudes.

“We’re entering the next phase in many of these countries,” she said. “We’re going to see much more frustration with gender inequality among both women and men before we get institutional change in developing countries.”

How the poll was conducted

The poll on gender equality was conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the International Herald Tribune in 22 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and the United States. These questions are part of the larger 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Interviews were conducted either by telephone or in person in April and May. In most countries, samples of 700 to 1,300 people were representative of the adult population. In China, India and Pakistan, the samples included at least 2,000 adults and were disproportionately urban. In addition, areas of instability in Egypt and Lebanon and remote sectors of Indonesia, Russia and South Korea were not surveyed.

The margin of sampling error for each country was plus or minus three to five percentage points. In addition, the practical difficulties of conducting any survey of public opinion may introduce other sources of error into the poll. Translation of questions into the many languages involved, for example, may lead to somewhat differing results. Each survey was conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 1, 2010

An earlier version of this incorrectly reported a statistic on people’s attitude toward women and jobs in Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan.


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