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The #MeToo generation gap is a myth

Are millennials at war with older women over #MeToo? Not according to a Vox/Morning Consult survey.

For Bill Maher, the problem with the #MeToo movement is “fucking fragile” millennials.

The Real Time host argued in February that young people were “going to bleed what is so great out of life” by being oversensitive and demanding complete safety in dating and sex.

“A police state, they always say, is the safest place to live, but you’re in a police state,” he said. “We don’t want to do that with love.”

He was amplifying a common criticism about young people and #MeToo. Almost since the current national conversation around #MeToo and sexual harassment began, disagreements about it — whether the problems it is addressing are real, whether the movement has gone too far in trying to discourage sexual misconduct in the workplace and beyond — have been cast in generational terms.

In January, Megan McArdle wrote at Bloomberg that women in their 40s and older “see sharp distinctions” between producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by more than 80 women, and men who merely “press aggressively — embarrassingly, adulterously — for sex.” However, “to women in their 20s,” she wrote, “it seems that distinction is invisible.”

Earlier that month, a young woman told the website Babe.net that comedian Aziz Ansari had pressured her for sex on a date. In response, Caitlin Flanagan opined at the Atlantic that women who came of age in the 1970s “were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak.” Women of an earlier era, she wrote, were better at “getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want.”

On the flip side, some have argued that older generations are out of touch on the issues of sexual harassment and assault. When 50-year-old HLN host Ashleigh Banfield criticized Ansari’s accuser for harming the comedian’s reputation over no more than “a bad date,” the author of the Babe.net story, 22-year-old Katie Way, responded by calling Banfield a “burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist” whom “no one under the age of 45 has ever heard of.” At Jezebel, Stassa Edwards called out an older generation of feminism, arguing that “second-wave feminists” have “rationalized, normalized, and coded abusive, predatory behavior as flirting, as courtship, as the simple reality of being female.”

But according to a survey Vox conducted with Morning Consult, a nonpartisan technology and media company, the experiences and opinions of ordinary women don’t fit this narrative of generational divide. In a nationally representative sample of 2,511 women around the country, we found that a majority of women support the #MeToo movement — which held true even when we looked at older women specifically.

We also found that older and younger women generally agree on what behaviors constitute sexual harassment. Where we found differences, they weren’t the ones Maher and others would lead you to expect — supposedly “fragile” younger women, for instance, were actually more tolerant of flirtation in the workplace than their elders.

Overall, we found no evidence of any war between the generations when it comes to #MeToo. Instead, our results paint a picture of a movement that enjoys broad support across different age groups, and that is inspiring women, older and younger, to rethink their assumptions about work, politics, and the future.

Women of all ages overwhelmingly support #MeToo, and a majority believe the movement represents their interests

Women 35 and older were about as likely to support #MeToo — and to feel that the movement represented them — as women 34 and younger.

And when we asked women about a variety of concerns about the movement that have come up in the media, their responses didn’t vary much by generation. When they did vary, younger women were sometimes more concerned than older ones about possible negative outcomes of #MeToo.

One generational difference we found might be in line with media narratives about millennials and #MeToo. Women under 35 were more likely than their elders to say it is acceptable for men to lose their jobs over sexual misconduct allegations, even in the absence of concrete evidence.

Despite decades of talking about sexual harassment, women across generations experience harassment at similar rates

This isn’t the first time sexual harassment has been widely discussed — Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 also prompted public conversation on the issue. Despite decades of growing awareness and rising women’s representation in the labor force, however, our survey suggests the prevalence of sexual harassment may not have gone down much. Women under 35 were about as likely as their elders to say they’d been harassed at work.

When we asked women if they’d experienced a variety of specific inappropriate behaviors in the workplace, such as sexual comments and unwanted touching, the results were also similar across generations.

Older women who had been harassed were more likely to keep silent about it

Among women who said they had experienced harassment, older women were more likely to say they’d never reported it to anyone, and younger women were more likely to say they’d spoken to colleagues about the harassment. As awareness around the problem of sexual harassment has grown in recent years, it’s possible that younger women have become more comfortable speaking out about it — at least to their co-workers, if not to their bosses.

Older and younger women showed broad agreement on what behaviors constitute sexual harassment

One common claim among those who see a generation gap in #MeToo attitudes is that younger people have a broader definition of sexual harassment than their elders. In a conversation with Bill Maher, the New York Times’s Bari Weiss cited a YouGov/Economist poll in which about 25 percent of millennial men in the United States said that asking a woman out for a drink was sexual harassment.

In our survey, however, older and younger women did not differ substantially when it came to whether behaviors like sexual jokes or unwanted touching constituted sexual harassment.

Despite “fragile” reputation, younger women were more accepting of flirtation and romance in the office than older women

The survey did find some interesting differences between age groups. One that stood out: Younger women are actually more accepting than older ones when it comes to flirtation and romantic relationships in the workplace.

Women of different generations are responding differently to #MeToo

Younger women were more deeply affected, in some ways, by #MeToo. They were more likely than older women to have changed their opinions on sexual harassment or assault, or on their own experiences, as a result of the movement. In a finding that may have implications for November 2018, they were also more likely than their elders to say that the #MeToo movement had made them think about electing more women to political office.

Interestingly, older women were somewhat more optimistic than younger women that #MeToo would lead to certain positive outcomes, like making women more likely to report harassment and making men more conscious of their behavior.

We’ll be examining the implications of some of the survey results in greater detail in future stories. And there’s a lot more work to be done when it comes to measuring Americans’ attitudes toward #MeToo. Our survey didn’t get at generational differences among men or gender-nonconforming people. It compared two age groups rather than breaking down respondents into smaller subsets, which could give insight into whether women in their 70s, for example, feel differently than women in their 40s. It also didn’t look at how women of different ages experience the intersections of sexual and racist harassment. The full picture of how our country thinks about #MeToo will take time, and much more research, to flesh out.

But overall, the results our survey contradict the idea that there’s a war raging over #MeToo between generations of American women. Instead, we found a lot of similarities across the age divide when it came to what women think about #MeToo — and what too many of them still experience in the workplace.


Notes on survey methods: This poll was conducted from March 2-8, 2018, among a national sample of 2,511 women 18 years and older. The interviews were conducted online and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of women based on age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and region.

We chose to compare women ages 18 to 34 with women 35 and over because much media conversation around #MeToo and generational divides focused on millennials. Definitions of “millennial” vary, but most put the oldest members of the generation in their mid-30s today.

Before completing the survey, respondents were asked to choose whether they identified as male, female, or neither — since this particular survey focused on comparing women’s attitudes across generations, only responses of people who identified as female were collected. Therefore, the survey doesn’t capture the attitudes of people who identify as male or gender-nonconforming.

Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/- 2 percent. The margin of error among 18- to 34-year-old women was +/- 3 percent; among women 35 and over, it was +/- 2 percent.


CREDITS

Photo illustration: Byrd Pinkerton and Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images
Charts: Javier Zarracina

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