Gender in Contemporary Europe: Rethinking Equality and the Backlash

Decades of policy efforts and campaigns by governments, international organizations and social movements have brought significant progress in women’s economic and political status. This transformation is most evident in Europe where the EU remains an exceptional driving force in its commitment to gender equality. The goal of gender equality, however, still remains largely out of reach, as illustrated by the recent wave of highly visible women’s protests against sexual harassment, assault and gender violence such as the #MeToo movement. Case in point, we have witnessed worrisome backsliding in gender equality performance in some European countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary and Lithuania) in recent years.

In parallel to calls for increased gender equality, a counter wave of mobilisation against gender equality has appeared in the public discourse. Conservative, authoritarian and populist voices in many democracies are now contesting the equal participation of men and women in society under the auspices of a “war on gender ideology”. This backlash against women’s empowerment carries considerable implications for anti-discrimination laws, policies protecting women against domestic violence, reproductive health and the establishment of gender quotas, even fueling an increase in hostility towards prominent female political figures. We are facing a critical moment for capturing the attitudinal bases of support and resistance to these policies across Europe.

In this project, the European Social Survey (ESS) is fielding a module we have designed to provide a gender perspective to illustrate and understand the recent illiberal turn in politics. Around 30 questions explore attitudes towards feminine and masculine identities, sexism, gender discrimination and gender equality.

Our module captures five dimensions of gender attitudes: feminine and masculine identities, sexism, perceptions of gender discrimination, salience of gender equality and attitudes toward policy responses to gender inequalities. While these dimensions have been fielded individually in single or multi-country studies, they have never been combined in a single instrument. We have three aims in proposing to combine these five dimensions. First, this module will allow drawing a comprehensive cross-national mapping of gender attitudes in Europe that contributes to identifying and explaining societal change. The second aim is to propose new and innovative ways of measuring gender identity and gender salience. Third, the module will provide measures of gender attitudes that can be used to explain cross- national variation in a range of policy relevant attitudes, behaviours and outcomes (e.g. health, happiness, life satisfaction, political attitudes and social values) regularly measured by the ESS in its core questionnaire. In addition to the survey data, a large number of contextual variables mapping various dimensions of gender equality policies will be collected.

The survey module is currently in the field in over 30 countries and is set to be released in 2024.

Core team:

  • Amy C. Alexander (University of Gothenburg, Sweden)
  • Susan Banducci (University of Exeter, UK)
  • Hilde Coffé (University of Bath, UK)
  • Jessica Fortin-Rittberger (University of Salzburg, Austria)
  • Marta Fraile Maldonaldo (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Spain)