Britons increasingly scared to speak out on women’s rights, data shows

People in Britain are increasingly afraid of promoting women’s rights for fear of reprisals, a major 32-country survey conducted for International Women’s Day has found.

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  • Olivia Ryan Public Affairs
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The share of the British public who say they are scared to speak out and advocate for the equal rights of women because of what might happen to them has doubled since 2017, rising from 14% to 29%. The majority, though, continue to say this does not apply to them (71%).

This growing sense of fear is in line with the direction of travel elsewhere in the world: across all the countries included in the study, an average of 37% now say they are afraid to speak out – and looking across 22 nations for which trends are available, the proportion who say this applies to them has risen from 24% to 33% since 2017.

The research, by Ipsos UK and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, finds that younger generations in Britain tend to be most fearful, with Gen Z (38%) around twice as likely as Baby Boomers (19%) to feel this way.

Across a range of other issues, the study reveals some shifts in public opinion that could suggest Britons are becoming more hostile to the idea of gender equality, as well as other shifts that are potentially more positive. 

Yet the findings also highlight that future progress is not guaranteed, with younger generations in fact holding less supportive views on some aspects of gender equality, even if they are still most likely to describe themselves as feminist and to say they’ve taken various actions to promote equality in the past year.

Some trends suggest a growing resistance to gender equality in Britain

  • 38% now agree that when it comes to giving women equal rights with men, things have gone far enough – up from 25% in 2018.
  • 38% also feel that men are being expected to do too much to support equality, an increase on the 29% who felt this way in 2019.
  • The share of the British public who say that a man who stays home to look after his children is less of a man has risen slightly, from 13% in 2019 to 19% today, with men (23%) more likely than women (14%) to feel this way. 

And a large minority of the British public - two in five (43%) people – say we have gone so far in promoting women’s equality that we are discriminating against men. A majority of men (53%) agree with this view, as well as a third of women (33%).

But other trends are heading in a more positive direction

  • 47% of Britons now think equality between men and women will be achieved within their lifetime, compared with 40% in 2018.
  • A majority of 51% agree there are actions they can take to help promote equality between men and women – a slight rise from 46% five years ago.

And Britain is still among the most supportive of gender equality internationally 

Of 32 countries, only three – Poland (26%), Japan (21%) and Portugal (17%) – are less likely than Britain (38%) to feel giving women equality with men has gone far enough.

And the share of the British public (38%) who think men are being expected to do too much to support equality is on a par with the share in the US (36%), which is least likely to agree with this view.

Britons are also comparatively unlikely to say they’ve heard a friend or family member make a sexist comment about a woman in the past year. One in five (18%) report hearing such a comment, with only people in South Korea (14%) and Japan (6%) less likely to report the same.

Younger generations do not always have the most progressive views on gender equality

It is often assumed that younger generations will inevitably be most supportive of efforts to advance gender equality – but this is not always the case. Looking at the global country average across the 32 nations included in the survey reveals the following:

  • Gen Z (30%) and Millennials (30%) are twice as likely as Baby Boomers (14%) to say that a man who stays home to look after his children is less of a man, with a similar pattern seen in Britain. 
  • Majorities of Gen Z (52%) and Millennials (53%) say we have gone so far in promoting women's equality that we are discriminating against men – greater than the share of Baby Boomers (40%) and Gen X (46%) who say the same.
  • And Baby Boomers – the oldest cohort surveyed – are in fact least likely to agree that when it comes to giving women equal rights with men, things have gone far enough in their country (4744%, versus 5554% of Gen Z) and to agree that men are being expected to do too much to support equality (47%, versus 55% of Gen Z). In Britain, we see the latter but not the former. 

Yet younger generations are more open about other aspects of gender equality, highlighting there is no uniform view among cohorts. For example, Gen Z (45%) and Millennials (44%) are more likely than Gen X (37%) and Baby Boomers (35%) to say they define themselves as a feminist. A similar divide is found in Britain. 

And Gen Z stand out as most likely to say that in the past year they have spoken up when a friend or family member made a sexist comment (27%, versus 16% of Baby Boomers), a pattern also seen in Britain.

Gen Z are also most likely to say they’ve confronted someone who was sexually harassing a woman (17%, versus 7% of Baby Boomers) – though they are also more likely to have been in these situations in the first place.

Overall, across the 32 countries surveyed, 68% of Gen Z say they have taken at least one action to promote gender equality in the past year, compared with 41% of Baby Boomers.

Kelly Beaver MBE, chief executive of Ipsos, UK and Ireland, said: 

Our ongoing research into gender equality shows that we have made significant progress with nearly half of people now agreeing equality will be achieved within their lifetime.  However, there are signs that the public are starting to push back on this progress to date, which is potentially worrying, but it may also be a sign that real change is happening in society and change can often make people uncomfortable and resistant. Over the coming years we will continue to measure this shift and I hope that we will see this discomfort shift to acceptance, acceptance that achieving gender equality is an essential evolution for British society.

Julia Gillard, chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, said:

Despite the progress we’ve made in recent decades, high-profile examples of misogyny are still rife, particularly online, and there are worrying signs from this research that such views are not only gaining ground among the public, but also deterring people from advocating for women’s rights. No one should be afraid to promote equality, and we need to do much better in supporting people to call out injustice wherever they see it.
But we should also emphasise the positives where we find them, including that people are increasingly likely to identify as a feminist and to recognise there are things they can do to improve gender equality. Yet we mustn’t be complacent. That it’s younger generations who are most likely to say a man who stays home to look after his children is less of a man is a disturbing reminder there is still much more to do, and that future progress is not guaranteed.

Technical details
These are the results of a 32-country survey conducted by Ipsos on its Global Advisor online platform. Ipsos interviewed a total of 22,508 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey, 20-74 in Thailand, 21-74 in Indonesia and Singapore and 16-74 in 24 other markets between Friday, December 22, 2022 and Friday, January 6, 2023. 

The sample consists of approximately 2,000 individuals in Japan, 1,000 individuals in each of Australia, Brazil, Canada, mainland China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and the U.S., and 500 individuals in each of Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

The samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the U.S. can be taken as representative of their general adult population under the age of 75.

The samples in Brazil, Chile, mainland China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and the UAE are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these countries should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population. The data is weighted so that each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data. 

The “global country average” reflects the average result for all the countries and markets where the survey was conducted. It has not been adjusted to the population size of each country or market and is not intended to suggest a total result.

Where results do not sum to 100 or the “difference” appears to be +/-1 more/less than the actual, this may be due to rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don't know” or not stated responses.

The precision of Ipsos online polls is calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 1,000 accurate to +/- 3.5 percentage points and of 500 accurate to +/- 5.0 percentage points. For more information on Ipsos' use of credibility intervals, please visit the Ipsos website. 

The publication of these findings abides by local rules and regulations.

The author(s)
  • Olivia Ryan Public Affairs

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