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Sexism Follows Women Across States—and Their Lives

New working paper reveals impact of sexism on women's career and life outcomes


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While U.S. women’s job and life prospects have changed dramatically over the last 50 years, a new study finds the amount of sexism in the state where a woman was born can take a toll on her earnings and career prospects—even if she later moves to a less sexist state. 

The IPR working paper, co-authored by IPR economist Jonathan Guryan, is the first to document a persistent gap in women’s socioeconomic outcomes across job markets in the United States. To avoid mixing gender issues with equally thorny racial ones, the working paper only includes data on white adults.

Jonathan Guryan
Jonathan Guryan

The research shows the level of sexist beliefs both in the state where a woman was born and the one where she currently lives affects her beliefs about who she is. That has an impact on her decisions about what she can or cannot do. These levels differ widely from state to state, and even vary within the same geographic region of the country. 

Guryan and his colleagues, Kerwin Kofi Charles of the University of Chicago and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore, measure sexism across the United States using nationally representative survey and census data from 1970–2017 that questioned respondents’ beliefs about women’s capacities, roles, and places in society.

States with more sexist attitudes had more respondents who believed that women should take care of the home and family, that men are more suited for politics than women, and that men should be the achiever outside the home.

They find that white women born in more sexist states experience larger gender gaps in wages and employment, even after they move to a less sexist state. These women also marry and have their first child at a younger age. This is because norms that women are exposed to as children, and internalize, continue to affect their life outcomes as adults, even after they move. For example, a woman born in Alabama who later lives in Massachusetts makes less money and works fewer hours when compared with a man who makes the same move. 

Additionally, women who move to more sexist states also marry and have their first child at a younger age and are less likely to work.

Guryan and his colleagues also break sexism down by where women experienced it across their lives. What they call “background sexism” is the level in the state a woman grew up, where she internalized gender norms and obtained certain skills. “Residential sexism” refers to the norms she currently confronts, along with sex-based discrimination in her current job market. 

The researchers discover that women internalizing the gender role norms of other women in the area drives how residential sexism affects these women’s marriage and childbearing. But the effect of such norms on labor outcomes is almost entirely due to discrimination from men.

Guryan says this provides evidence that prejudice-based discrimination is likely an important factor in American women’s labor and family outcomes.

"It's important to understand the sources of gaps in earnings and employment between men and women because it helps to guide where policy might effectively focus," Guryan explained.

Jonathan Guryan is a professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.

Read the IPR working paper.