Violence against women (VAW) is a common problem in Australia, with serious health, social and economic consequences. The reasons for VAW, both in and out of the home, are likely affected by multiple factors; particularly, attitudes towards perpetrators, victims and gender equality.
Australian researchers, led by Kim Webster of the University of Melbourne, have found low support of gender equality was related to attitudes that may encourage, or fail to sanction, violence against women.
In their survey of around 17,500 Australians, they determined a correlation between what people think about gender equality and their attitudes that support a culture of VAW.
Hostility towards women and belief in rigid gender roles were the greatest predictors of indirectly supporting VAW.
The paper, published in The Australian Journal of Social Issues, suggests that a prolonged reduction in VAW depends on increasing gender equality across the board.
“Surely no one will be surprised that this study reinforces a correlation between low support for gender equality (particularly attitudes of gendered hostility and support for rigid gender roles and identities) and attitudes supporting violence against women,” says Dr Niki Vincent, Victoria’s commissioner for gender equality in the public sector.
“What is most concerning for me is the relative pervasiveness of hostile sentiment found in this study and, as the authors note, the need to anticipate and plan for the possibility of a backlash against action to change this.”
The findings also show that endorsement for gender equality in public doesn’t necessarily reflect attitudes towards equality in private life. Direct emphasis on practising gender equality in intimate and family relationships might be required to reduce violence against women.
“These (and other similar) factors have been associated with an increased likelihood of supporting men’s use of violence against women – for example, beliefs such as women ‘deserve’ or ‘asked’ for violence in some way, or that minimise, excuse and normalise the actions of perpetrators,” says Dr Bianca Fileborn, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Melbourne, whose work focuses on sexual violence and harassment.
“This contributes towards a social and cultural environment in which men’s violence against women is able to flourish.”
Vincent describes this public/private disconnect as the “most insidious… finding (as many of my colleagues working to promote gender equality have long understood…)”.
“How can we overcome the problem of those paying public ‘lip service’ to gender-equality and violence-against-women issues, while in private continuing to enact a ‘business-as-usual/don’t-ask-and-don’t-tell’ approach to these issues?” she asks.
The research didn’t specifically examine people who had committed acts of violence, but looked at opinions that indirectly supported violence against women.
Examples of this could be victim blaming, support for control and unbalanced power by men over women in relationships and in public life, and hostility towards improvement of women’s status. While none of these things are direct acts of VAW, they may contribute to a culture that perpetuates it.
“Clearly, these types of attitudes are feeding into the existence of gender inequality that underpins violence and reinforces a culture that condones men’s use of violence,” says Fileborn.
Participants were surveyed over the phone, and asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a range of opinions relating to gender roles and treatment of women. Some examples are below.
Examples of attitudes demonstrating belief in rigid gender roles
- A woman has to have children to be fulfilled.
- I think it is embarrassing for a man to have a job that is usually filled by a woman.
- If a woman earns more than her male partner, it is not good for the relationship.
Examples of attitudes demonstrating hostility towards women
- Many women exaggerate how unequally women are treated in Australia.
- Women often flirt with men just to be hurtful.
- Many women mistakenly interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.
Examples of community attitudes supportive of violence against women
- Sometimes a woman can make a man so angry that he hits her when he didn’t mean to.
- Women who flirt all the time are somewhat to blame if their partner gets jealous and hits them.
- I don’t believe it’s as hard as people say it is for women to leave an abusive relationship.
- A lot of times, women who say they were raped had led the man on and then had regrets.
- Women find it flattering to be persistently pursued, even if they are not interested.
- Women who wait weeks or months to report sexual assault are probably lying.
A comprehensive list of attitude scales tested in the study are shown in the appendices of the paper.
Further longitudinal research, where individuals are assessed over multiple fields for many years, will be needed to confirm a connection between gender inequality and VAW. But the study reveals a strong correlation between the two, and the authors suggest that these factors could be useful indicators of social change when assessing VAW preventative programs.
“While we can’t claim a direct causal link between gender inequality and violence against women, the results of the 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey, demonstrate that attitudes towards gender equality are the strongest predictor of attitudes supportive of violence against women,” says Dr Heather Nancarrow, CEO of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited (ANROWS).
“Gender inequality represents a devaluing of women’s intrinsic worth: disrespect for women.”
Nancarrow adds that these results reflect similar research done internationally, which has “consistently found that gender inequality provides the conditions that support and perpetuate violence against women”.
“As we recover from the gendered economic impacts of COVID-19, and in the continuing wake of workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault being reported, even in our halls of power, it’s clear that we need change,” says Vincent.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.