Society's gap between men and women still wide

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Story highlights

  • Men believe gender differences are due to biology, a new survey says
  • But most women say societal expectations are the cause
  • Physical attractiveness is the trait society values most for women, survey found

(CNN)The past two months have no doubt been a turning point when it comes to sexual harassment allegations in the workplace. Women, who are often the victims, feel more empowered knowing that if they come forward today, two things are more likely than they would have been years ago: They are more likely to be believed, and their perpetrator is more likely to be held accountable.

We may have come a long way on attitudes about gender -- but we still have a very long way to go, based on the results of a new survey by the Pew Research Center.
    A majority of Americans believe there are definite differences between men and women in terms of how they express their feelings, their physical abilities, their hobbies and interests, and how they parent, according to the findings. More than 4,500 people were surveyed in August and September, before the current wave of sexual harassment stories began to be reported.
    Those findings are not groundbreaking; after all, they're at the heart of the success of the bestselling book "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" first published 25 years ago.
    But when you ask "What's the cause of those differences?" that's when a true gender gap becomes evident.
    On every point but physical abilities, men and women disagree: Men believe that gender differences are based on biology, and women say they are rooted in societal expectations.
    Fifty-four percent of men in the survey said the differences between how men and women express their feelings are due to biology; 67% of women say they're based on societal expectations. A similar gap was found in the approach to parenting: Fifty-eight percent of men chalked up the differences to biology, but 61% of women said the cause is expectations from society.
    "It's definitely not a settled debate," said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center. "Men tend to think that the differences are more driven by biology, where women say it's what society is expecting of the genders that's really driving some of these differences in things like how they express their feelings, even hobbies and interests and the way that they parent."
    Susan Heinzelman, director of the Center for Women's & Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said the danger is in the consequences surrounding this kind of thinking. Remember the firestorm this summer over the Google engineer who said more men are in tech because women aren't well-suited for the profession for "biological" reasons?
    "Given the kind of culture that we live in, you can see that the most benefit from that understanding of the difference is going to go to men," said Heinzelman, who was not involved in the survey. "If it's biology, then there's nothing we can do about it, and you aren't responsible for doing anything to change the social situation that creates these differences. ... It's an enforcement of the status quo."
    Heinzelman, who is also a professor of English at the University of Texas, sees a connection with the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations in various professions, including media, entertainment and politics.
    "Some of the comments that I believe have been circulating about the way men behave in the workplace, it's like, 'Oh, well, that's men. Men will be men. Yeah, that's just the way they are,' " she said. "What it says is, it's the way it is, that's the way the world is, and there's nothing we can do about it. ... This is what we are seeing now with sexual harassment. So many women say that 'I just have to put up with it because I couldn't do anything to change it,' so it's totally a disempowering move for women to believe in this essential difference between men and women."
    Women make up just about half of the workforce, with 40% of them being the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, and women have broken through nearly every glass ceiling -- with the exception of the presidency. However, the survey revealed that both men and women still believe that society values physical attractiveness in women over everything else, including intelligence, leadership and ambition.
    Thirty-five percent of all those surveyed said physical attractiveness was the trait society valued most in women, followed by 30% who said empathy, nurturing and kindness. Only 22% said the top trait society values in women is intelligence, and only 9% said ambition and leadership.
    For men, 33% said the top trait society values is honesty and morality, followed by professional/financial success (23%) and ambition/leadership (19%).
    "You can ask women what they value or what they think the world values, and those are two different questions," Heinzelman said. "Many women, even women who say 'I'm a feminist; I'm a radical feminist,' we have still been nurtured in a world in which we accept the values and the hierarchies that men have created. So it's not a surprise that women would understand that physical attractiveness -- this is not something they necessarily believe -- should be the top priority, but they certainly understand that that is one of the top priorities for men and ... that's the way they are being judged."
    The survey also found differences in the beliefs about the top pressures men and women face: Seventy-one percent said women face a lot of pressure to be physically attractive, and 77% said they face pressure to be an involved parent, while 76% said men have a lot of pressure to support their family financially.
    "There's this really differential set of expectations that people think that society has for men versus women, and that is just interesting given the role that women are playing in their day-to-day lives, with being in the workforce and being providers, but still feeling this pressure to be physically attractive and to be an involved parent," Pew's Parker said. "And the public doesn't really expect them to be focusing on their careers or focusing on being breadwinners."
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    There is a sliver of good news when it comes to gender equality in the survey. One area where people see more similarities than differences between men and women centers on work. Sixty-three percent believe men and women are basically similar surrounding things they are good at in the workplace, compared with 37% who believe they are mostly different.
    A hopeful finding and a surprising one too, perhaps, because people are seeing more equality in the workplace, "yet the workplace has been the forum for a lot of the discrimination and harassment that we've been hearing about," Parker noted.