The movement to advance women’s development and equality is going through a stress test. The forces in today’s world that are eroding women’s advancement challenge us to consider whether progress can be sustained – but do those who support gender equality have the social and cultural capital to protect it?

If we look at the United States and analyse those who voted for Donald Trump versus those for Hillary Clinton, a pattern emerges. These two groups see the world differently, including how they see gender roles and the treatment and rights of women.

According to a recent Pew study, a majority of people who voted for Trump believe that diversity has had no positive effect (or even a negative effect) on their lives and that of the country. Compare that with 72% of Hillary Clinton voters, who said diversity has made the country a better place.

Gender-role changes and redefinitions of masculinity play a role in those beliefs. According to the New York Times, most in the US agree that it is a better time to be a man than a woman in our society, with only Republican men thinking it’s a better time to be a woman than a man.

Image: Pew Research Center

Which rights are we talking about?

Examples of reversals of women’s rights in the so-called free world so far include: reduced funding for reproductive health globally, a stated avowal to reduce or eliminate women’s choice in family planning, and a glaring under-representation of women and minorities in US cabinet-level positions.

This erosion of progress is not limited to the US. A further distressing example has recently occurred in Russia. The Duma Russia's parliament voted 380 to 3 in favour of decriminalizing domestic violence in cases where it does not cause “substantial bodily harm” and does not occur more than once a year. A Kremlin spokesperson told journalists that family conflicts do “not necessarily constitute domestic violence”.

This sentiment seems to take women’s rights back to the Middle Ages.

So, what's driving it?

Perhaps most puzzling and upsetting is that 53% of white women voted for the current US president, and in Russia the domestic-violence bill was supported by ultra-nationalist women parliamentarians.

What is going on? For many women, it is possible that there is a kind of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and gender equality falls below their own more compelling concerns about economic security, loss of jobs through globalization and automation, threats of terrorism and nationalistic appeals to their sense of identity.

Gender equality, pay equity or even absence of sexual harassment and degradation are nice-to-haves, but perhaps not need-to-haves in the face of economic insecurity and a sense of being left behind. That desire and nostalgia for a better time in the past – that need to "make America great again" – appears to include going back to stereotypes of the gendered roles women and men historically played.

In France, women indicate they are backing Marie LePen to protect their jobs and security. Le Pen isn't campaigning for equality, she's promising justice and security, explains Nicolas Lebroug, a researcher on French far-right politics at the University of Montpellier. “That often resonates more with women facing the challenges of everyday life.”

Economic inequality between urban centres and rural areas can drive this insecurity and economic anxiety. For women, who often have fewer social safety nets, this anxiety can be an overwhelming driver.

A woman stands at the centre of a group of Trump supporters in New York
Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

For Hillary Clinton, it also appears that the desire for power expressed by a woman can create a backlash by both men and women. According to researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, when female politicians are described as power-seeking, both men and women experience feelings of moral outrage (i.e. contempt, anger and/or disgust) towards the woman.

Small steps forward

But there's good news. Reversals in reproductive and other rights have galvanized the world's women, who came out in the millions in January to protest against the inauguration of a US president they saw as a threat to the cause of equality.

What these marchers saw, over the course of the US presidential election, was that it is permissible to demonize women, to say and do offensive, abusive and discriminatory things without repercussion – in fact, with crowds cheering on. This erosion of cultural filters is happening elsewhere, too: in the United Kingdom a majority of women parliamentarians have seen an increase in online death threats and verbal abuse from members of the public.

Yet many countries are seeing progress. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries on the status of women, reflects strong improvements in some countries’ overall progress.

The advancement for women is based on a foundation more fragile than many of us believed. Now more than ever, we need male leaders along with female leaders at all levels and countries to speak out on behalf of women. Female presidents and prime ministers can speak out and galvanize those who allow gains to be reversed. So can the millions of women and men who tweet, organize and protest.

There is a wonderful saying: “Women are like snowflakes: one alone may melt, but together we can stop traffic.”