Bias Against Feminists

Take Away:  Feminists are discriminated against when they point out bias, sexism, and discrimination.


I have been teaching at the college level since 1995. When I teach about Identity Development, I have my students do a brief writing exercise that one of my psychology professors used when I was a student. It’s quite simple: Write out five statements that answer the question, “Who am I?”


There is usually lots of variability in how students respond. I ask for volunteers and then write out the responses from 4 or 5 people. As a class, we analyze the similarities and differences. For example, students notice that a lot of people mention relationship roles, personality traits, membership in groups, and so forth.


Most semesters, before we wrap up, one or more of my students will ask me to share my five statements. I usually rattle off in random order: Professor, Canadian, Feminist, Scientist, Nerd.


I try to be vocal about being a feminist, in the same way that I have been trying to be more vocal about being secular, non-religious, and atheist. The research shows that one way to reduce prejudice against an out-group is for members of that group to become more visible, vocal, and self-identify with the particular label.


As a college student, I was not willing to call myself a feminist (in public). Like many young women, I believed in all of the central ideas behind feminism, but refused to use that label.  In my first semester of graduate school, my roommate said, “As a feminist, I think that…”. I don’t remember what he said. I remember interrupting him to say, “You can’t be a feminist, you’re a man.” I got a somewhat angry soapbox speech as a result. I had a fundamental shift in my worldview because of that one conversation.  


Fast forward twenty-some years. In my daily life, most men and women identify as feminists. Most of my friends and colleagues openly embrace, support, and promote diversity. As mentioned in my Member Spotlight – I have only been aware of the larger population of secular individuals and activists since I took some down time after my most recent promotion.  It has been fascinating for me to contrast my offline life (where feminism is the default value) with the online secular community where feminism is frequently caricatured as “man hating” or “reverse sexism.”


There is actually a lot of psychological research to explain what’s going on with the backlash to feminism.


I want to briefly describe one study to illustrate (Roy et al., 2009). In this study, people read a brief description about a woman who was not chosen for a leadership role because of a poor test score on a “creative potential test.” There were a number of different versions of the vignette. In some cases, the story described a situation where there was no evidence of gender discrimination. In some stories, there was obvious evidence of discrimination. For some, the evidence for discrimination was ambiguous.


In each of these story types, the main character (“Jill”) could be described as a feminist or not. Participants in the study were randomly assigned to read one of these stories. In the stories, Jill is unhappy about her score on the creativity test. In one case she asks if her test can be rescored because she believes that the evaluator is sexist. In another version, she asks if her test can be rescored because she believes that the evaluator was too harsh.


When participants finished reading one of the versions of Jill’s story, they were asked to evaluate her. How much do you like Jill? How much of a “complainer” is Jill? Did the evaluator grade Jill’s test unfairly? Was there evidence of discrimination in the story?


Take a moment to think about how you might react if you read different versions of the stories. Would you assess Jill differently when there was explicit evidence of sexism?  Would you think she is overly sensitive if she self identifies as a feminist? If Jill is not a feminist, would you like her more?


When I run the mental simulation, I can imagine that I might call Jill a “complainer” if there was no obvious evidence of sexism. When there is ambiguous or certain evidence for discrimination, however, I can imagine thinking that she is justified in her complaint.


What did the researchers find? The only thing that really mattered was whether Jill considered herself to be a feminist or not.  Jill was rated to be more of a complainer (e.g., that she was “hypersensitive” or “a troublemaker”) when she was described as a feminist (p = .03).


It did not matter if there was no evidence, ambiguous evidence, or certain evidence of discrimination. Regardless of how the situation was described, when Jill identified as a feminist people judged her to be a complainer. In contrast, when Jill was described as “not a feminist” people were far more willing to take her claims of discrimination seriously (p = .04). Again, regardless of how much discrimination was described as actually occurring, people trusted Jill’s accusations of discrimination when she did not identify as a feminist.


Across the board, people had negative views about “feminist Jill” regardless of how much discrimination she faced.  Simply describing Jill as a feminist was sufficient to make people believe that she did not face discrimination, even when the situation was unambiguously discriminatory.


There are a lot of studies that describe the social costs to making claims of discrimination. We judge a person a lot more harshly if they are described as (or self identify) as a feminist.


Moving forward. One implication is that we stop calling ourselves feminists (!). This is hardly an ideal solution for those of us interested in promoting social change. Alternatively, we can work to create a culture in which merely being labeled as a feminist (or an atheist) does not lead to such negative reactions.


Who is working on both?  Secular Woman!  We envision a future in which women (and feminists!) without supernatural beliefs have the opportunities and resources they need to participate openly and confidently as respected voices of leadership in the secular community and every aspect of society.



  1. Roy, R. E., Weibust, K. S., & Miller, C. T. (2009). If she’s a feminist it must not be discrimination: The power of the feminist label on observers’ attributions about a sexist event. Sex Roles, 60, 422-431.


Other Readings of Interest

  1. Garcia, D. M., Reser, A. H., Amo, R. B., Redersdorff, S., & Branscombe, N. R. (2005). Perceivers’ responses to in-group and out-group members who blame a negative outcome on discrimination. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 769-780.
  2. Kaiser, C. R., & Miller, C. T. (2001). Stop complaining! The social costs of making attributions to discrimination. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 254-263.
  3. Zucker, A. N. (2004). Disavowing social identities: What it means when women say,“I'm not a feminist, but…”. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 423-435.