Mars and Venus: How women engage differently in politics

The conventional political wisdom says that women are less interested and engaged in politics than men. Major explanations for this so-called “gender gap” were women’s lower access to socioeconomic resources. For example, men are more likely to be full time employed than women, and employment is positively related to political participation.

Women also tend to have fewer political resources and be less likely to be politically interested and politically knowledgeable – which has been related to women’s socialisation toward a gender role that is more passive, private, rule-abiding and compassionate, while men are oriented toward leadership, public roles, autonomy and self-reliance.

More accurately, however, women engage differently than men.

For example, in a study with Catherine Bolzendahl looking at 18 post-industrialised societies, women were found to be less likely to demonstrate, attend political meetings, contact a politician or be a party member than men, but more likely to sign a petition, boycott products for ethical reasons and donate funds.

These latter types of “private” activism are also the types of engagement which are the least resource dependent and which may be easier for women to incorporate in their daily life. Women’s greater pressure to specialise in the “private” sphere may also contribute to gender differences in participation with women participating in such less visible and formal ways.

The gender divide on issues: voters

Similarly, whereas most research shows that women are less interested than men, I argue that it is more accurate to say that women are interested in different policy issues than men rather than (only) less. Taking advantage of British data survey, I investigated gender differences in interest in different levels of policy making: local issues, national and international issues, as well as politics overall. Taking insights from literature on gender differences in socialisation and social position, I argued that the more substantial pressure that women face to specialise in the private sphere may imply that women are more interested in community-oriented, local issues. 

The British survey data confirmed a gender gap in interest in national and international issues and politics overall, with men being more likely to be interested in politics overall and national and international issues than women, but did not indicate a gender difference in interest in local issues. Once gender differences in political efficacy were considered and included in a multivariate analysis, women were even more interested in local issues than men. In particular, women’s lower expectations of their own political potential, in contrast to men’s confidence in their own capacities, accounted for a substantial positive effect of being female on interest in local issues.

Thus, if women were to develop more confidence in their political competences and abilities, they would be significantly more interested in local issues than men.

That men have confidence in abundance relative to women also explains their higher levels of interest in national and international issues. The analyses also provided evidence that respondents associate interest in politics with national issues to the greatest extent and with local issues to the least extent. This conceptualisation of interest in politics among the public implies that research using a general measure of political interest actually measures interest in national issues, which are issues in which women tend to be less interested than men. 

In sum then, there are clear gender differences in the ways that women and men participate in politics and the issues they are interested in. Women and men are thus qualitatively different with respect to their participation patterns and their interests. Given the importance of political interest and engagement for the well-functioning of democracy, these gender differences are crucial to recognise and understand.

If women and men do participate in different ways and some types of participation are more valued and more influential than others, this has important consequences for women’s and men’s social and public roles, and it will influence the extent to which policy decisions reflect men’s and women’s demands and interests. 

The gender divide on issues: politicians

Similar arguments can also be made for the elite-level and Members of Parliament, where women also tend to engage differently than men, as shown, for example, in their committee membership. Focusing on Germany, my co-authored study showed that women are over-represented on parliamentary committees dealing with social issues or committees associated with the “private” sphere, reflecting women’s social construction as being more nurturing, people-oriented, and familial.

By contrast, women are underrepresented on committees concerned with foreign affairs, employment, finance, business and economics. The sources and importance of this cleavage intertwine with the social construction of gender difference and gender status hierarchies. Institutionally, access to power and the construction of gender overlap such that legislative committees associated with masculinity/men are more prestigious and powerful than those associated with femininity/women. These ‘high politics’ issues generally convey power, while women-dominated committees handle so-called ‘low politics’ areas such as health, education, tourism, and family.

Male dominance of the most prestigious committees reinforces the de facto gendering of politics as masculine. 

And of course, people can ask, so what? Women may prefer to participate the way they do, women representatives may prefer being on committees handling so-called “feminine” issues or may prefer being a list MP.  It is, however, important to keep in mind the difference in prestige the different roles and ways of engaging, and the different influence they have, resulting in a possible inequality in representation and policy outputs. In addition, it is important to recognise that if it would be a “choice”, it is often the result of gender socialisation. And gender stereotypes can also enable mechanisms that ‘push’ women to roles or types of engagement typically seen as “feminine”, even if this push is unintended.

So what to make of all this? I argue that a move away from discussions on overall gender “gaps” towards a focus on qualitative “differences” between women and men’s participation patterns both among the public and the elite helps to gain a better understanding of the functioning of democracy. Through this research agenda of comparing gender equal participation and representation between various types of engagement and bodies and roles in parliament, we can highlight gender patterns in politics and political institutions – opening our eyes to the impact these differences have on policy making and governance overall.