How sexist is Britain?

March 03, 2011, 10:53 PM GMT+0

When Andy Gray and Richard Keys parted company with Sky Sports after their sexist remarks, two reactions were common: on the one hand, that their comments were wholly unacceptable, and on the other, that what they had said off-air was no more than common banter.

This month our survey for Prospect seeks to illuminate these issues by testing how far we associate various occupations with men or women. We asked: ‘If you had to choose someone to do each of the following, would you prefer a man or a woman, or would you not mind whether you chose a man or a woman?’

The results are encouraging for those who wish to banish gender stereotypes.

  • For each of the 14 occupations we chose, at least 77% said they didn’t mind.
  • In some cases, such as MP or hospital doctor, the percentage of those not minding approaches 90%.

Hidden prejudice?

Can we trust these figures – or are some people giving the socially acceptable answer and hiding their true prejudices?

I believe the figures are real. One of the advantages of online research is that respondents have complete anonymity: they do not have to admit socially unacceptable thoughts to an interviewer. Past experience shows that people are more honest in online polls on issues that range from tax to racism. In the 2009 European elections, YouGov came within one percentage point of predicting the BNP’s vote; some telephone polls significantly understated their true support.

The ‘testosterone tendency’

So the big picture is that most of Britain really has moved beyond gender stereotypes. But there is a significant minority that does associate some occupations with particular jobs.

  • Around one in five – getting on for ten million Britons – thinks that receptionists and hospital nurses should be women, and that captains of jumbo jets and football referees (the original cause of the Gray/Keys saga) should be men.
  • Detailed analysis of our data shows that the people who hold each of these views are generally the same: 15% of the electorate hold three or all four of these views.

Who are these lingering sexists? They can be found in all parts of Britain and in all social classes. But two-thirds of them are men and – perhaps surprisingly – they are found in well above average numbers among the under 25s. We could call this phenomenon the ‘testosterone tendency’: Andy Gray and Richard Keys (and Jeremy Clarkson) may hold views that most of us dislike; but it would appear that they do nevertheless reflect (and possibly reinforce?) attitudes held by significant portions of their target audience.

See the survey details and full results

A version of this article also appears in Prospect