We’ve all heard the claim that sexism holds women back. But what if there is a deeper, more insidious force preventing women from reaching high levels of office? Is it possible that you could be a sexist—without even knowing it?
In the continuing effort to litigate why Hillary Clinton lost, many on the political left are pointing to a force called “unconscious sexism” or “internalized misogyny”. The unconscious sexism theory tells us that gender bias has become so normalized in society that it is embedded in our subconscious in ways we do not even perceive. We’re all infected with hidden bias, but it’s Republican women who supposedly harbor the deepest levels of unconscious sexism. For instance, a recent piece in Five Thirty Eight made the case that women who supported Trump were particularly affected by unconscious sexism at the ballot box.
This isn’t the first time the left has used this argument to rationalize Clinton’s lack of universal appeal among female voters. Days after the election, asked by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes why Clinton failed to get more support among white women, former Clinton campaign communications director Jess McIntosh explained: “Internalized misogyny is a real thing … We as a society react poorly to women seeking positions of power.”
Implicit bias is an intriguing theory. On face value, it seems likely we can be influenced by cultural and social forces without realizing it, and that maybe hidden prejudices could influence voting behavior. If we ignore the myriad reasons Americans may have chosen not to vote for Hillary Clinton—and there are many—it’s certainly possible that some people didn’t vote for her because, on a deeper level, they’re simply uncomfortable with a female president.
But no matter how deeply Clinton’s supporters believe this to be true, it’s not borne out by research. In fact, the concept of implicit bias and the claim that it had anything to do with Trump’s election is nothing more than an unproven, alluring theory and a handy tool for closed-minded progressives, desperate to explain a fact they simply cannot grasp: that millions of self-determined, empowered women do not identify with the Hillary Clinton and the brand of left-wing, nanny-state feminism that she represents.
Project Implicit, a nonprofit research organization, administers an online Implicit Associations Test (IAT) designed to gauge hidden bias. Project Implicit’s research has been cited in thousands of papers and was the primary evidence in the recent Five Thirty Eight piece. However, as one can imagine, measuring levels of unconscious bias is not easy. You can’t just ask respondents their views on race and gender; you have to design a test that somehow reads their subconscious.
The methodology for doing this is bizarre and, to say the least, controversial among social scientists. Even if researchers could establish that implicit bias exists, proving that people act upon that bias—say, in their voting behavior—is another task altogether. As Hart Blanton, a University of Connecticut psychologist who has studied the IAT extensively, explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom” and is actually no more useful than simple explicit measures (that is, tests that directly ask respondents about their biases).
A recent meta-analysis from researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined nearly 500 studies that involved more than 80,000 participants. They concluded the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior is quite weak. According to the authors, there is “little to no evidence” that changes in implicit bias lead to changes in behavior.
Evidence linking implicit bias directly to the results of the 2016 election is even harder to find. Five Thirty Eight cites analysis by New Jersey-based research firm HCD Research, claiming it shows “striking” evidence of a correlation between women who planned to vote for Trump and high levels of unconscious sexism. But HCD’s findings actually seem to contradict this claim. “Interestingly, we found that study participants did not exhibit gender stereotyped associations, regardless of who they plan to vote for,” the researchers concluded.
In any case, progressive commentators will likely continue to accuse people with whom they disagree of being closeted sexists, racists, or bigots no matter how weak the evidence. It’s a convenient way to dismiss critics, especially because it’s unfalsifiable. Denying that it exists is just further evidence of its existence.
Still, the constant accusations of internalized misogyny point to a much deeper problem within the feminist movement and left-wing orthodoxy as a whole. Any woman who writes on women’s issues from a conservative or libertarian perspective is all but guaranteed to be accused by mainstream feminists of harboring internalized misogyny or—worse yet—of taking certain positions to curry male favor.
These so-called feminists may claim to speak for all women, but an empowering and just women’s movement would respect women’s agency to exercise our personal autonomy to vote for whomever we choose. To imply that the choices of Trump-supporting women are not truly free, and to accuse them of being hoodwinked by some hidden nefarious force, is demeaning and contrary to the very principles of feminism.
It might be easiest for members of the liberal elite to blame the pseudo-science-fueled, invisible boogeyman called “unconscious sexism” rather than come to terms with the many shortcomings of their candidate and movement as a whole. But as long as they do this, they can’t expect the anti-establishment disdain that led to Hillary Clinton’s defeat to die down anytime soon.
Caroline Kitchens is a policy analyst at the R Street Institute.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard