The Gender Gap in Interest in Politics

Heather Mac Donald has an interesting column on the widely discussed data showing that some 87% of all Wikipedia contributors are male. She argues persuasively that it’s difficult to attribute the gap to discrimination, since most Wikipedia writers are anonymous, thereby making it virtually impossible for Wikipedia to discriminate against women even if they wanted to.

Wikipedia obviously covers many subjects. But to the extent that the underrepresentation of women there extends to the entries on politics and policy issues, it’s part of a longstanding pattern of lesser interest in such issues among women as compared to men. For example, decades of research show that there is a substantial gender gap in political knowledge, with men especially overrepresented among the 5% of the population who follow politics most closely, as measured by political knowledge levels (a group that is some 80% male). I present some of the relevant data in Part VI of this article, including the figure about the top 5%. As I describe there, the gender gap in political knowledge covers a wide range of issues. There are relatively few exceptions. Similarly, this recent Harris poll shows that 25% of men, but only 10% of women report reading at least one nonfiction book on politics over the last year. As in the case of Wikipedia, it’s hard to attribute these gaps to discrimination. Basic political information of the kind tested by pollsters is easily accessed in many different places, and booksellers would be more than happy to sell more political books to women.

Obviously, it would also be wrong to attribute the gap to “stupidity” on the part of women. Political ignorance is not stupidity. As I have often pointed out in the past, it is actually rational behavior for most citizens, assuming that their only reason to become informed is to be a “better” voter. Most of those who do acquire a lot of political knowledge do so primarily because they find it interesting, rather than because they are unusually intelligent or patriotic. Moreover, it is clearly not the case that women are generally less knowledgeable than men. Younger women today have higher average levels of educational attainment than men, and the Harris poll mentioned above shows that they also read more than men do overall.

Thus, the gender gap in political knowledge and interest in politics is likely due to lower interest among women in this particular field rather than “stupidity” or a general unwillingness or inability to acquire information. More men than women are interested in reading about politics and following policy issues closely.

Why the difference? The most obvious explanation is that politics was historically a male-dominated sphere from which women were largely excluded. Only in the last few decades has that begun to change in a major way. Elements of the old attitude surely persist, and they probably influence women’s propensity to become interested in politics. At the same time, that may not be the only factor. Despite massive changes in public attitudes on women’s role in politics over the last fifty years, the general gap in political knowledge has declined only modestly over time (I cite some of the relevant data in this article). The gender gap might therefore persist even after sexism in politics has been more fully overcome than it has been so far. One possibility is that women are simply more likely to have various nonpolitical interests than men are, which leaves less free time available to follow politics. For example, the Harris survey shows that many more women than men read various genres of fiction than men do (science fiction is an unusual, but predictable exception).

At this point, some readers will be tempted to dismiss the data by saying something like “I’m a woman and I love politics,” or “I know many women who follow politics all the time.” But the data are based on statistically representative samples of the population as a whole. For every such general pattern, there are many individual exceptions. The fact that I like Jane Austen novels doesn’t discredit the data showing that her readership is disproportionately female.

Our personal experience can be a poor guide to general patterns because we and the people we know are often unrepresentative. If you regularly read political blogs such as this one, you and your friends are likely to be much more interested in politics than the average person – male or female. The fact that women on average are less interested in politics than men is perfectly consistent with the existence of many individual women who follow politics closely and an even larger number of men who don’t. Indeed, the statistically average man is very far from being a political junkie. But among those people who do fall into that category, men are significantly more common than women.

UPDATE: In this 2008 post, I commented on the related fact that the vast majority of political bloggers are male, as are about 70-80% of political blog readers.