Not interested? Women’s interests are also political!
By Marta Fraile, Monica Ferrin, Raúl Gómez and Gema García-Albacete *
People around the world are routinely asked survey questions about their interest in politics. No matter in which part of the world, women are less likely than men to say they are interested in politics. The gender gap in political interest is persistent across both space and time, and has been argued to explain why women are less likely to actively participate in politics (partisan or otherwise) compared to men. However, most of what we know about women’s relative lack of political interest is based on analysing responses to the same survey question, “How interested are you in politics?”. In a unique study conducted in Spain (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0192512119860260), we challenge this conventional finding by asking: what if this survey question does not capture women and men’s political interests equally well?
The mainstream view in survey research is that political interest is unidimensional – in other words, it is assumed that people tend to be similarly interested in all areas of politics. Therefore, it is generally considered that the concept of politics evokes the idea of interest in ‘government’, ‘parties’ and conflict over ‘policies’. While this may well be true, we argue that this conception of politics as having to do with government and conflict is not gender neutral. In the first place, it is possible that people’s understanding of the word ‘politics’ depends on their gender and that women do not share the same definition as men. Secondly, even if women and men did share a similar understanding of politics, this socially accepted definition might still be gender-biased, as it is oriented towards specific aspects of politics that men are typically more interested in. So, when women answer questions about their general interest in political matters, they may be declaring a lower degree of interest than they actually have, partly because they are disregarding their interest in other facets of politics.
For our study, we conducted a nationally representative online survey in Spain with the aim of unpacking what political interest means for women and for men. Rather than simply asking respondents ‘how interested are you in politics?’, as conventional surveys do, our survey also asked them to say what they think politics is, and to identify which specific political topics they are interested in.
Our findings suggest that there is little difference in the way women and men define politics. More than 85% of our respondents (both women and men) thought that politics is related to concerns such as unemployment, citizens’ rights and politicians’ salaries. We therefore did not find strong evidence that the meaning of politics is different for women and men. However, when we analysed respondents’ specific interests, it was clear that the political topics that they were interested in differed across genders – a finding that is consistent with previous studies in other countries, such as Britain and the USA. Men show greater propensity to be interested in topics related to representation, the functioning of institutions and contentious partisan issues such as the role of religious values, the electoral system, politicians’ salaries, social equality and citizens’ rights. Women are significantly more likely to declare an interest in topics closest to their concerns, such as the gender pay gap, abortion, and gender-based violence, as well as specific social issues and policies such as governmental scholarship policies and the price of medicines.
The fact that women and men’s political interests are different suggests that we should not automatically conclude that if women say they are less interested in politics than men, they will always shy away from the political realm. Instead, women are interested in topics that perhaps, given the traditional conceptualization of politics, are not typically considered to be political. The evidence in our study is consistent with this. We found that respondents who said they were interested in those issues of greater interest for men were also more likely to declare greater interest in politics (as measured by the standard question, “How interested are you in politics?”). Moreover, when we analysed the responses of women and men who were interested in the same topics, they all declared similar levels of general political interest. This supports the idea that if women were interested in the same topics as men (or vice versa), we might not be able to find any sizable gender gap in their (declared) political interest.
Our study leads us to conclude that, rather than focusing on all the political issues that they are interested in, when women are asked about their general interest in politics they may (even unconsciously) only consider topics that are socially linked with the concept of ‘politics’. As a consequence, there may be instances in which women declare low levels of general political interest while simultaneously caring a great deal about topics such as the privatization of public services (health and education), gender discrimination in the labour market, abortion, and gender-based violence. In our view, however, all of those are very political topics. We therefore question the conventional picture that women are less interested in politics than men. What is more, we wonder about the extent to which the substantial gender gap in political interest that has been abundantly reported by prior studies using standard survey indicators (our work included) might actually be hiding the distinct substantive interests of women and men.
Feminist scholars have long raised concerns about the narrow vision of politics that characterizes many of the indicators used by political science and survey practice. The conventional definition of politics is too narrow, and women are interested and mobilized by different issues and priorities than men. Some might perhaps challenge the political character of some of those issues, but at times when both social and gender equality seem to be backsliding, or at the very least questioned even by politicians in some established democracies, their political character needs to be reclaimed.
* Co-authors of “The gender gap in political interest revisited”, published in the International Political Science Review, Online First, 16 August 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0192512119860260