Expert Commentary

Causes of gender differences in political knowledge

2009 study by the University of Missouri in Political Behavior on the origins of the male-female divide in knowledge of politics.

According to survey data, American women consistently score lower on questions of political knowledge than do men. This difference makes women less likely to vote, run for office or communicate with their elected representatives. However, the root causes and structural barriers that explain this persistent gender gap in political knowledge — typically a 10-point difference in surveys — are not well understood.

A 2009 study by the University of Missouri published in the journal Political Behavior, Gender Differences in Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Characteristics-Based and Returns-Based Differences,” analyzed data in the United States from 1992 to 2004 to try to isolate the underlying causes of this male-female split.

The study’s findings include:

  • The factor that truly widens the gap is how education translates into political knowledge differently for men and women. All things being equal, the political knowledge of a man with a high school diploma is equivalent to that of woman with an associate-level college degree. (The author notes that changes in classroom approaches may help remedy this problem over time.)
  • Each extra year spent in higher education is linked to a 6% average increase in political knowledge for men and a 5% increase for women.
  • For each additional year in age, men’s political knowledge increases on average by 0.59%, whereas women’s knowledge increases by 0.35%.
  • For every additional child, women’s political knowledge is linked to a 1.29% average decrease, whereas male knowledge decreases by 0.74%.
  • The one area that fosters greater political knowledge for women than for men is participation in outside organizations and groups. Such membership results in a 4.46% average increase in political knowledge for women, while only a 0.48% increase for men.
  • Being married is associated with an increase in a woman’s political knowledge, on average, by 1.56%; being married is linked to a 0.6% decrease in a man’s knowledge.

The study’s author states that “the gender gap in political knowledge exists because for any given level of education, men learn and retain more factual knowledge about politics than women.” Because educational practices “reflect deeply held norms and values,” reducing the gap will not be easy. However, the researcher notes, if females’ overall positive “trends in educational achievement continue, perhaps accompanied by changes in curricular and pedagogic approaches, the political knowledge gap may narrow.”

A related study published in Political Behavior, “The Roots of the Gender Gap in Political Knowledge in Adolescence,” examines, among other things, how the tone of partisan campaigns may affect the learning patterns of teenage females and males.

Tags: higher education