A new study has found that the early stages of the COVID‐19 pandemic coincided with increases in support for traditional gender roles among U.S. adults, suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak is linked to a small shift towards social conservatism. The findings appear in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
“As we all know, the pandemic dramatically and rapidly disrupted the lives we were used to, from our everyday personal routines to the deep and overarching workings of society. Everything suddenly became uncertain,” said study author Daniel L. Rosenfeld, a PhD student at UCLA.
“Theories from evolutionary and social psychology suggest that this kind of uncertainty is threatening and — especially when paired with the risk of infectious disease and existential fears (e.g., the high death toll of COVID-19) — has high potential to make people more socially conservative and traditional.”
“So we looked at political ideology (how liberal vs. conservative people identify as) in our research, but we were also interested in considering a more concrete area where we know political ideology matters a lot: gender roles,” Rosenfeld explained. “We were especially interested in seeing whether the pandemic could have changed the way people think about gender, in terms of both how much they personally identify with traditional forms of masculinity vs. femininity and how they think these gender roles dictate how other people are expected to behave.”
The researchers used Amazon Mechanical Turk to survey 2,000 U.S. adult participants regarding their political ideology, gender role conformity, and endorsement of gender stereotypes on January 25 and January 26, 2020, prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Of the initial sample, 695 participants passed attention checks and completed a follow-up survey between March 19, 2020 and April 2, 2020. In the follow‐up survey, participants also completed a measure of COVID‐19 concern.
The researchers found that self-reported political ideology did not significantly change in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, participants reported conforming more strongly to traditional gender roles and more strongly endorsing traditional gender stereotypes during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic.
“The main finding of our study is that people believed more strongly in traditional gender roles once the pandemic started than they did before the pandemic,” Rosenfeld told PsyPost. “Men identified as more masculine, women as more feminine; and people believed that men were expected to act more masculine and women to act more feminine. For example, once the pandemic started, participants were more likely to agree that men are expected to act more brave and adventurous than women are.”
However, it is unclear “based on our data why this gender role shift emerged over time,” Rosenfeld noted.
It is possible that the pandemic evoked feelings of uncertainty, which drove people to embrace existing social systems. It is also possible that perceptions of elevated disease risk played a role. Previous research has found that disgust sensitivity and fear of contamination are both linked to social conservativism.
“It’s also unclear whether this gender shift has persisted since we completed our data collection in April 2020. Maybe it went away. Or maybe it grew even more. Also worth noting is that our study focused just on the United States, so our findings have relevance only for that cultural context,” Rosenfeld said.
“These differences in gender beliefs were small, so it’s unclear how much of a tangible impact they could’ve had (or could still be having) on society or in people’s everyday lives. But when it comes to a matter as important as gender roles in the U.S., where gender disparities in social and economic life run deep, any effect could be worth considering.”
The study, “Can a pandemic make people more socially conservative? Political ideology, gender roles, and the case of COVID‐19“, was authored by Daniel L. Rosenfeld and A. Janet Tomiyama.