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Neoliberalism: An Ideological Barrier to Feminist Identification and Collective Action


Even though gender inequality is ubiquitous, not all women get involved in remedial collective action. We hypothesize that neoliberal ideology, which emphasizes individual responsibility, free choice, competition, and meritocracy, undermines women’s feminist identification and collective action. In the first experimental study (n = 159), and consistent with the hypotheses, women primed with meritocracy identified less as feminists, perceived remedial collective action as being less important, and were less likely to ask for information regarding these actions in comparison with women who were not primed with meritocracy. Importantly, feminist identification mediated the effect of meritocracy priming on both perceived importance of collective action and the choice to be exposed to information about feminist collective action. A second correlational study (n = 232), relying on a multi-dimensional measure of neoliberal ideology and a behavioral measure of collective action, revealed that, as hypothesized, endorsing neoliberal beliefs was related to more gender system justification, less feminist identification, and less collective action in favor of women (i.e., sending a message to their elected member of parliament asking them to denounce sexist advertisements). The mediation models of Study 1 were supported in Study 2.

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  1. 1.

    We did not specify that the study was directed only at women not to raise suspicions nor activate gender identities. Therefore, 216 participants completed our measures, but to test our hypotheses, only female participants (comprising 74% of the total sample) were retained in the analysis.

  2. 2.

    Including or withdrawing participants who did not originate from western cultures, who had not been living in France for at least 7 years, or who were part of feminist organizations did not change any of the conclusions; we therefore decided to include all participants in the analyses.

  3. 3.

    Additional exploratory qualitative measures were also included at the end of the experiment but could not be exploited due to measurement errors (the majority of answers was too short or ambiguous to be analyzed).

  4. 4.

    We received three emails that could not be traced back to a specific experimental condition. Because participants had to write down the email address for later use, this measure may not have been effective, see Study 2 for an alternative measure.

  5. 5.

    Entering age, perceived socioeconomic status, and political orientation did not affect the presented patterns.

  6. 6.

    Not controlling for participants’ perception of meritocracy scores did not change any of the conclusions.

  7. 7.

    For both mediation models, we report results where participants’ perception of meritocracy scores was controlled for. Not controlling for these scores gave similar results.

  8. 8.

    Similar to Study 1, men could also participate in the study; therefore, 260 participants completed the measures, but once again, only the female sample (comprising 89% of the total sample) was used to test the hypotheses. However, men were included for the NBI structure analysis because at least ten responses per item were required to run the analysis (see also p. 23).

  9. 9.

    Besides, the other sets of values had poor alphas: stimulation (α = .65), security (α = .61), tradition (α = .31), conformism (α = .49), hedonism (r = .46), and autonomy (α = .55).

  10. 10.

    Other measures were included in this block (4-item scales of independent and interdependent self-construals, Singelis, 1994) but could not be used due to poor Cronbach’s alphas (α = .55 and α = .48, respectively). We hypothesized that endorsement of neoliberal ideology would be correlated positively with an independent self-construal and negatively with an interdependent self-construal. In an exploratory vein, we also measured social comparison orientation (Gibbons and Buunk (1999), and we predicted that endorsing neoliberal beliefs would be positively correlated with social comparison orientation. However, the correlations between this variable and the others ranged from − .02 to .04 and were only significant with self-enhancement values (.23; p < .001).

  11. 11.

    The two authors compared their respective French translations of the items to arrive at an agreement.

  12. 12.

    Other measures were included in this block but could not be used either due to a very poor Cronbach’s alpha (preference for equal opportunity, 5 items with α = .17), or due to measurement error (25-item scale of Foster and Matheson (1995) assessing past participation in collective action with a Likert-type scale instead of a frequency scale).

  13. 13.

    A measure of environmental collective active action was also included, and we hypothesized that endorsement of neoliberal ideology would negatively predict engagement in environmental (i.e., another system-challenging) collective action. But because this was not the main focus of the paper, it is not mentioned further. Still, results from a logistic regression do support this hypothesis, b = − 0.30, SE = .13, χ2 (1, N = 216) = − 5.44, p = .019, eB = 0.74, 95% CI [0.57, 0.95].

  14. 14.

    We still tested an alternative model with feminist identification as the X variable and endorsement of neoliberal ideology as the M variable. The indirect effect for this model was also significant, b = 0.01, 95% CI [0.00, 0.02]. However, the proportion of the effect that is mediated in this alternative model is smaller (19.06%) than it is in mediation 4 (40.19%).


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This manuscript is based on data collected as part of the first author’s Master’s thesis and Ph.D. at Paris Descartes University under the supervision of Virginie Bonnot. We are grateful to Cristina Aelenei, Ivane Nuel, Marie-Pierre Fayant, and Theodore Alexopoulos for their assistance with the statistical analyses. We are also grateful to Iliana Saidi and Ophélie Jouanne for their help with data collection of Study 2. Finally, we wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, and especially the associate editor of the journal, Heather Smith, for their useful comments on the previous versions of the manuscript.


Part of this research was supported by a grant from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-19-CE41-0001-01).

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Correspondence to Lola Girerd.

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Adapted Scales Used in Study 1 and Study 2

Meritocracy scale used for priming (Study 1)

  1. 1.

    At school, most of the time, when there is a will, there is a way.

  2. 2.

    Everyone has more or less the same chances to succeed at school.

  3. 3.

    To succeed professionally, often one only has to work hard.

  4. 4.

    In life, most of the time, people are rewarded for their efforts.

  5. 5.

    Students who obtain poor grades are most often those who have not worked enough.

  6. 6.

    Employees who get promoted are generally those who put in the most effort.

  7. 7.

    In life, sometimes people get what they deserve.

Feminist identification (Study 1 and Study 2)

  1. 1.

    I consider myself to be a feminist.

  2. 2.

    I identify myself as a feminist to other people.

  3. 3.

    Feminist values and principles are important to me.

  4. 4.

    I support the goals of the feminist movement.

  5. 5.

    Overall, being feminist is unimportant to my sense of what kind of a person I am.

  6. 6.

    Being feminist is an important reflection of who I am.

  7. 7.

    Generally speaking, being a feminist is an important part of my self-image.

Perceived importance of collective action (Study 1 and Study 2, except for the 6th item)

  1. 1.

    Women need to work together in order to create an equal society.

  2. 2.

    It is important for me to speak up to support other women.

  3. 3.

    An important part of my feeling successful in my career will be the knowledge that I have advanced the position of women.

  4. 4.

    It is important for women to participate in group activities such as women’s marches in order to defend their rights.

  5. 5.

    Building cooperative relationships with other women should be a priority in every woman life.

  6. 6.

    Women should share career and financial strategies with other women.

Orientation toward individual responsibility for personal mobility (Study 1 and Study 2)

  1. 1.

    Women are the only responsible for acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for their success.

  2. 2.

    The only way for women to get ahead is to study and work hard.

  3. 3.

    Women’s progress depends solely on their personal choices.

  4. 4.

    Women are the only responsible for their upward social mobility.

Adapted gender system justification scale (Study 2)

  1. 1.

    In general, relations between men and women are fair.

  2. 2.

    In general, men’s and women’s salaries match their competences.

  3. 3.

    Laws of nature are responsible for differences between men and women in society.

  4. 4.

    Most women who don’t get ahead in our society should not blame the system; they have only themselves to blame.

  5. 5.

    Differences between men and women reflect differences in the natural order of things.

  6. 6.

    Women’s economic positions are legitimate reflections of their achievements.

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Girerd, L., Bonnot, V. Neoliberalism: An Ideological Barrier to Feminist Identification and Collective Action. Soc Just Res 33, 81–109 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-020-00347-8

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  • Neoliberal ideology
  • Meritocracy
  • System justification
  • Feminist identification
  • Collective action