Parents who believe men should hold the power and authority in society and the family were less responsive to their children during family interactions, according to new University of Auckland research.
Lead author, Professor Nickola Overall of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland says that for decades, sexism has been known to predict negative behaviours toward women, from discrimination to violence.
“Our study suggests the effects flow through to poorer parenting,” she says.
As part of the study, family groups were video-recorded in a laboratory, with researchers assessing parents’ responsiveness, including warmth, involvement, engagement, and sensitivity toward their children.
The less responsive parents – both mothers and fathers – had disclosed higher levels of “hostile sexism” – an academic term for attitudes favouring male authority and antagonism toward women who challenge men’s social power.
The results for fathers were expected and highlight that the harmful effects of men’s sexist attitudes may also involve poorer parenting, says Professor Overall.
The discovery that mothers who agree with hostile sexism were likely to be less responsive parents was unexpected, she says.
“It could be that these mothers follow the father’s lead in family interactions, which leads to less engaged parenting.”
“Another possibility is that mothers guard their traditional role as caregiver by restricting the father’s parental involvement, which detracts from being responsive to the children.”
Professor Overall says responsive parenting is pivotal to healthy child development, and its absence can lead to behavioural issues, emotional difficulties, and lower academic achievement.
There’s no proof of causality in the University of Auckland research and alternative causes can’t be ruled out, she says. In addition, the laboratory setting will have altered participants behaviour, cutting for example the likelihood of displays of the most punitive parenting.
“Despite these caveats, the current studies emphasize the importance of understanding how, why, and when sexist attitudes affect parenting—a pivotal and overlooked domain that is intricately connected to the power-differentiated gender roles that reinforce gender inequality,” Professor Overall and her co-authors wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“The novel results offer new directions in understanding the broader impact of sexist attitudes on children across generations,” she says.
“There is also more to understand about why women continue to agree with sexist attitudes despite the harm they have for women and children.”
She says the link with less responsive parenting didn’t exist for mothers and fathers classed as disclosing “benevolent sexism” – a term for attitudes romanticising traditional gender roles by emphasising the virtues of men as providers and protectors and women as caregivers.
The first part of the research featured 95 mixed-gender couples with their five-year-old children. Observing families undertaking a collaborative task of building a cardboard tower, the researchers uncovered the statistical association between hostile sexism and less responsive parenting. A second study of 281 couples and their children observed in two different family tasks replicated the link.
To establish levels of sexism, parents had answered questions such as:
- Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them;
- Women seek to gain power by getting control over men;
- Women exaggerate problems they have at work;
- Once a woman gets a man to commit to her she usually tries to put him on a tight leash;
- Women are too easily offended.
Across 19 countries, nations such as Chile and South Africa were ranked high for “hostile sexism” while the likes Australia and the Netherlands were ranked lower, according to research published in 2000, which did not include New Zealand.
“Improving child health and wellbeing is connected to improving the attitudes that confine women and men to specific roles, and vice versa,” says Professor Overall.
The study co-authors were Dr Valerie Chang, Dr Annette Henderson and Dr Caitlin McRae, all from the University of Auckland, Dr Emily Cross of the University of Essex, and Dr Rachel Low of Victoria University of Wellington.