Sex Differences in the Acceptability of Discrimination

By Kuran, Timur; McCaffery, Edward J. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Sex Differences in the Acceptability of Discrimination


Kuran, Timur, McCaffery, Edward J., Political Research Quarterly


A large telephone survey conducted after the attacks of September 11, 2001, suggests that the willingness to tolerate discrimination varies significantly across domains, with a very high tolerance of discrimination against poorly educated immigrants and a strikingly low tolerance of discrimination against the genetically disadvantaged. Regardless of domain, tolerance is greater among men than among women. A survey conducted simultaneously over the World Wide Web, using volunteer panels, replicated the phone survey results and revealed an even larger sex gap. This finding suggests that a social desirability bias leads women to overstate and men to understate their tolerance of discrimination in public.

Keywords: discrimination; sex differences; surveys; public opinion; social desirability bias

Although discrimination has long been associated with malevolent intent and social harm, it remains ubiquitous. To go to the theater with one group of friends rather than another is, fundamentally, an act of "discrimination." So, too, is buying one artist's painting instead of an equally priced work of another. With respect to a wide range of contexts, including the selection of friends and art, "discrimination" often carries a neutral connotation. It may even signify praise, as with references to a person's "discriminating taste."

An individual who sees nothing wrong with certain forms of discrimination will often find others objectionable and even favor their prohibition. Many political struggles of our time, in the United States as elsewhere, amount to clashes over the appropriate boundary between permissible and impermissible forms of discrimination. The groups that spearhead these struggles typically draw their constituents disproportionately from specific groups. Thus, Arab Americans enjoy disproportionate representation in movements seeking to eradicate discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. Likewise, women are overrepresented in those focused on ending discrimination against women.

People who sympathize with movements aimed at expanding their own opportunities need not be indifferent to discrimination against others. In principle, identifiable groups could differ in their attitudes regarding discrimination. To explore this possibility with respect to one specific group attribute, sex, is this article's objective. To this end, we measure how the acceptability of discrimination varies by sex, in various contexts of broad social, political, and economic relevance.

The analysis is based on a large telephone survey conducted in January 2002, shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In view of the emotionally charged atmosphere of the time, we suspected that respondents might be more tolerant of certain forms of discrimination, such as the denial of airplane seats to Arab American travelers, than of others, such as racial profiling against African American motorists. We thought, that is, that social context would matter. In addition to restrictions on Arab American airplane passengers and the profiling of African American motorists, we inquired into attitudes about three other forms of discrimination: the denial of employment to seriously overweight people, genetic testing to screen job applicants who pose medical risks, and the use of education as a factor in admitting immigrants. We expected to find differences across these contexts as well. On the basis of a growing literature on sex differences in political attitudes (Foster, Arnt, and Honkola 2004; Alvarez and McCaffery 2003; Lueptow, Moser, and Pendleton 1990), we expected, additionally, to encounter sex differences in the acceptability of discrimination.

The results below show that attitudes toward discrimination are indeed highly dependent on subject matter. Our respondents were much more tolerant of discrimination against certain groups than against others. Differentiating among acts of discrimination, they displayed the greatest acceptance of discrimination against poorly educated immigrants, and the least acceptance of genetic discrimination. …

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