Why is the political gender gap growing?
Men and women are diverging on culture war issues
Recently, the centrist pundit Matthew Yglesias tweeted the historic time series of Gallup surveys on political ideology among Americans aged 18 to 29 (shown below).
The graphs demonstrate a growing ideological gap between the sexes, with a rapid increase in the share of “liberals” among women but not men. As polarisation deepens, fewer young people are calling themselves centrist or “don’t know” and picking an ideology, but only among women are they disproportionately moving Left.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Some who replied to Yglesias thought the change could be attributed to the growing share of women attending university (the share of women in the student body has risen from 42% to 60% since 1970).
But the growing female tilt among college students does not explain the change. Consider the data shown below from the massive Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey of incoming undergraduates, which samples some 100,000 students across 184 American colleges, weighted to be representative of all levels of higher education. If you compare the grey and blue bars, you see that women were less liberal than men in the Seventies, but since George W. Bush came to power in 2004, have been growing steadily more liberal than men.
By 2016, a record 42% of women identified as liberal, versus 28% for men.I lack access to the raw HERI data for subsequent years but the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) surveys of 55,000 undergraduates in the top 150 colleges in 2020 and 2021 show that 61% of women lean liberal compared to 44% of men, a whopping 17-point gender gap.
If not differences in rates of attending college, what underlies the astounding gender divergence in youth attitudes? Essentially, it appears to stem from a wokeness divide. In the FIRE survey, when you control for opposition to allowing controversial speakers (on BLM, abortion and trans rights) on campus, the statistical effect of gender on ideology collapses thirteenfold in statistical power.
The graph below shows 2020 YouGov Profiles data for a sample of around 25,000 British 18 to 30 year-olds, broken down by gender, for the following question: “Thinking about political correctness, are you generally in favour of it (it protects against discrimination), or against it (it stifles freedom of speech).” Each age has thousands of responses, and the data show differences of 30 to 40 points among those aged 18 to 23 while the gap is narrower for those aged 23 to 30.
For another UK survey of 945 individuals from Prolific I conducted this year, I found that 64% of women under 30 favoured political correctness on the above question compared to 48% of men under 30. This 16-point gap dwarfed the 4-point gender gap found in the over-50s. When I asked this on an American Qualtrics survey, the gender gap was 14 points for under-30s compared to a mere 1 point for the over-50s. The gender gap among the young stands out in both cases.
It’s important not to blow the gender story out of proportion. Well over 90% of the variation in culture war attitudes, as with ideology, is within-gender rather than between genders. The gap may also close as people age and settle down. Nevertheless, gender is becoming a more important political cleavage among young people, and could emerge as more politically significant as Millennials and Gen-Z remake electorates in Britain and the United States.
Yes, but “Identifying as Liberal” has become somewhat meaningless, thanks to what “Liberal” signifies to different people.
I consider myself liberal but not ‘a Liberal’. When I hear people talking about ‘liberal values’ I feel as though they will chime with my own values and opinions. Then, when they expand on what they mean by liberal values, I realise that by their lights I’m not liberal, at all.
When it comes to political labels we’ve got to a point where, frankly, we need a whole new political lexicon.
‘Left’ and ‘Right’ no longer have any distinct, universally agreed upon meaning. Terms are over-used and mis-used to the point that their definitions are now so elastic as to render them useless as definitions altogether.
Everyday on comments pages like these we all fling around labels like progressive, centrist, liberal, neo-liberal, hard-left, extreme-right – I’m as guilty as the next man. If all the people using those terms were to plot where on the political spectrum they thought such definitions sat – and the people and policies contained within them – there would be such an overlap that they become rather pointless ways to define anything.
Though, I have to say that nothing on the ‘woke’ end of the culture war spectrum should reasonably be defined as Liberal. What could possibly be more authoritarian than promoting a narrow woke worldview and seeking to punish and shame anyone who dares to think outside it?
Good comment. Your final paragraph describes almost exactly why I define wokeness as “the authoritarian pseudo-progressive usurpation of liberalism”.
”we all fling around labels like progressive, centrist, liberal, neo-liberal, hard-left, extreme-right – I’m as guilty as the next man. If all the people using those terms were to plot where on the political spectrum they thought such definitions sat – and the people and policies contained within them – there would be such an overlap that they become rather pointless ways to define anything.”
I disagree, I think we all know what is meant. Sure, a lot is from taking in context who is saying what and why – but we are all sophisticated enough to factor that in.
When one of those ‘hard liberals’ call someone ‘Extreme Right’ we know it is saying more of them than using a political definition – and we get the message just fine.
This political language is not hard science, but ‘Liberal Arts’ where meanings have to be read from the totality of the messaging. There is no other way political talk can work, it is not Physics. I think the language works just fine, and I rarely have trouble getting what is actually being said by those words.
The simple answer to the question of why more young women are “liberals” is that “political correctness” or “woke culture” or “feminism” gives women victimhood. Even if a woman is white, comes from a very rich family and has been privately educated she can still be a victim who is oppressed by the patriarchy. If a man comes from a poor family, has been educated at a substandard state school and is struggling in life he is still privileged because he is a man.
As more people and organisations have bought into such ideology the more victims have gained from victimhood.
This is part of the reason, but a more powerful reason is that women don’t want to offend and do want to “protect” those they see as being victims – victims of the supposed patriarchy of course. I see this all the time with “kind” well meaning women who are hostile and even agressive on woke issues. Sometimes there is a theme of wishing to apologise for their supposed privilege too
I think the answer is more simple, in that the policies of the new middle class left have been financially advantageous for women and detrimental to men. In the last few decades lots of jobs that were traditionally more male have been moved offshore (manufacturing) or have seen an influx of immigration (construction) that has increased competition and caused wages to stagnate. By the same token there has been an explosion in well numerated female roles such as HR and the like.
It makes sense for men to be suspicious of a political movement that has left them worse off, and women to be more receptive to one they’ve done well from
Men are mostly pay more in than they take out. They don’t live as long when retired, and rarely get pregnant and get a year off. Women benefit more from state spending, which is why they vote left.
Be interested to see the impact of the Terf wars on this.
My own experience is that more and more women every day are losing patience with being told that they have to accept men pretending to be women in their spaces – and correspondingly they are finding more in common with the ‘right’ than the ‘left’.
So, as always, it’s a case of self interest.
What’s wrong with that? Why would anyone oppose their own interests.
For women, being in the victim role works well for them. They are more likely to be looked after by ‘the community’ where other women will feel sorry for them.
I’m afraid that It just doesn’t work that way for men, unless they cast themselves as gay or transgender. A man who portrays himself as a victim is often ridiculed as weak and ineffectual.
The problem with Western society right now is that ‘female’ attributes are more prized, not because they are necessarily better, but because women are generally easier to manage than men. They are intelligent, hard-working, cheaper and more cautious about upsetting others.
For now it’s working out well for women, but with the distinction between genders being eroded, this may soon no longer be the case as we see with the TERF wars between women and trans-women. Political ideologies always need an enemy and disagreeable women make a tempting target, especially among men who would like nothing more than unbridled access to vulnerable women and girls’ spaces.
The majority of British Millennials will vote Tory in 20 years. The only ones who won’t will be the very rich or very poor ones. The story is as old as time.
The youngest millennials are turning 30, the oldest well into their 40s. Needs to start happening pretty soon if it’s going to matter.
According to YouGov, at the last election those aged 40-49 voted CON 41% versus Lab 35%. Those over 39 were more likely to vote CON than LAB.
Like their parents and grandparents, Millennials will grow to find the iconoclastic posturing of the young off-putting.
People only vote Conservative if they’ve got something to conserve. Why would they do so if a parties policies have seen them endure stagnant wages and priced out of owning a family home?
Haha, look at the stupid woke racists!
In my experience young women tend to have these views until a strong man dates them, when they almost immediately change their views. They are hopelessly dominated by peer pressure.
I’d be fascinated to know what your ‘..in my experience…’ phrase actually covers. Are you the ‘strong man’ these lily-livered gals date? Is it a randomised cohort of your clean-jawed, good-humoured pals? Are you calling in from the early 1950s? More details please.
I get the overall conclusions of this article, and appreciate the discussion below the line, but being a bit of a data nerd that hones in on unexpected results there is one thing that stands out in the third graph that deserves comment. It shows that male and female attitudes to political correctness converge at ages in the mid 20’s, to the point where there is virtually no difference at age 26, before diverging again at later age. Why is this? Could it be that this is the age at which most people are seeking to settle down with a partner for life and that having staunch opinions would limit the choice of prospective partners? Do people actually modify, or hide, their opinions in this game? Are there other ways to explain the results? A bit of an off-beam comment, but it would make an interesting study.
Men and women are practically different species, existing in some form of essential but ultimately destructive symbiotic relationship. If we didn’t need each other to procreate the current violence between the sexes would probably be an all out war of annihilation.
It’s a fascinating point that needs more attention. I can see this closer to home and it is not healthy for society (or couples) for men and women to drift apart so markedly.
There are several causes. Generally, women tend to be more empathetic by nature. So pleas to fairness and equity are harder to resist. Do we see this in schools where all must have prizes and competition (where there are losers as well as winners) is a bad word? Plus more women in humanities, gravitating to management jobs, less emphasis on childcare (which is often hard work, unglamorous and unsentimental), and more inclined to avoid conflict. I expect there are more …
Rare to find a woman with much empathy for men. They do exist, just rare.
Mostly the first move is to imagine how it would be for a woman in those circumstances, and then work forward from that.
The arguments for the Right are logical, common-sense, and proven by history. The arguments for the left are theorectical, emotional, use deceptive information and semantics, and are proven by history to be a failure. 80% of Women are susceptible to the left’s arguments, but only 20% of men are.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe