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The gender gap in politics goes deeper than a liberal-conservative split

STANFORD -- The gender gap in politics, which pollsters expect to be especially large in next week's presidential election, can be attributed to a different stance between men and women toward social equality, says Felicia Pratto, a psychologist who studies political attitudes.

This difference does not consistently show up as a Republican-Democrat or liberal-conservative split, she says. Women voters in this country and elsewhere have been both more conservative and more liberal than male voters in the past, depending upon what the issues of the day were.

"When we ask people in polls to self-identify themselves as liberals or conservatives, we are saying we know what the meaning of those labels are, but I think we are deceived," Pratto says. "That's why it is useful to try to explain differences more explicitly and on a somewhat deeper level."

Pratto's long-term research agenda includes looking for those deeper meanings through laboratory experiments and opinion sampling on an international level. Her survey work in the United States generally fits within an international pattern. It shows that an individual's preference for equality or inequality among social groups explains his or her views on a large number of political issues. Gender differences or gaps in those political attitudes also can be explained largely by a tendency among men to want to enhance social hierarchy and a tendency among women to want to attenuate it.

Pratto and her UCLA-based colleague Jim Sidanius and their graduate students consistently find that men are more supportive than women of what Pratto calls "hierarchy enhancing" social policies, such as arresting the homeless for sleeping in public places or increasing military spending. Men are also more likely to endorse ideologies that state or at least imply that certain kinds of people are not as good as others ­ displaying class, ethnic, national or sexual prejudices, according to their studies. In some countries, this may take the form of supporting a statement such as "God made poor people poor," whereas in the United States, men are more likely to support a statement such as "some people are just more worthy than others."

On average, women are more supportive than men of "hierarchy attenuating" policies, such as government-sponsored health care, guaranteed jobs for all or greater aid to poor children. They are more likely to agree with statements such as "if people were treated more equally, we would have fewer problems in this country." Individuals' responses to such questions, Pratto says, explain more about people's policy preferences than do the liberal or conservative labels that pollsters often ask those they survey to select for themselves.

1992 election

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Pratto, Sidanius and former graduate student Lisa Stallworth found that individuals' orientation toward social group equality, as measured on Pratto's standardized scale, explained the differential in men's and women's preferences for presidential candidates. The study involved sampling about 400 students at San Jose State University during the campaign and a like number of voters exiting San Francisco Peninsula polling places on Election Day.

Both men and women picked candidates on the basis of policy issues, Pratto says. The women voted more heavily for Bill Clinton than for George Bush and Ross Perot, and they consistently said that Clinton's stand on various social issues was more similar to their own. Men voted the reverse but also consistent with their stands on social issues. The study, like many others, Pratto said, undermines several stereotypes about women voters ­ that they vote differently from men because they have views only on issues that touch directly on their home and family, or that they base their vote not on social issues but on the personal characteristics of candidates.

In 1988, George Bush said publicly that he had picked Dan Quayle as his running mate to appeal to women voters, yet Quayle had little record of involvement with issues that affect women. Bush indicated that he thought Quayle might appeal to women because he looked handsome like John F. Kennedy.

"My data and other data from the 1992 election show that was a completely failed strategy," Pratto says. "It is a stereotypic notion that women somehow vote with their hearts or are not thoughtful about political issues, but the data show that is not true. . . . They have opinions about the same general issues that men have opinions about, including foreign policy, education, immigration and affirmative action. They happen to not have the same opinions that men do."

In general, she said, "women have a different stance from men toward one of the fundamental values that Americans, on average, like to hold dear, and that is social equality."

Because there is a mountain of psychological research demonstrating that humans tend to overcategorize people, Pratto takes pains to point out that her research does not find an absolute difference in men and women. There are some women who believe strongly in promoting a social hierarchy, while some men favor more equality. In nearly every sample they take, however, the researchers find an average difference between men and women in their preference for equality, and it is those averages that constitute the gender gap, Pratto says.

Greater gap this year

The gender gap is greater this year, according to presidential polls, and Pratto suggests it may be because "gaps between groups sometimes get exaggerated when certain issues symbolically polarize people."

"We saw how the O.J. Simpson trial symbolically polarized blacks and whites," Pratto says. "It's as if on some issues, two groups of voters are not interpreting the same information in the same way."

Men and women may be perceiving Dole and Clinton differently on current high-profile issues such as family values or government spending cuts, she suggests.

"The two candidates appear to have differing relationships with their wives, and equality in marital relationships is a more important issue for women than men," Pratto says. "The candidates also differ in their support for social programs, like welfare, that are directly relevant to the situation of women and children in this country."

There may be "an element of self-interest" in both men's and women's political positions on social issues this year, Pratto says. For example, women are more likely to oppose cuts in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which was one of the social program cuts that the Republican Congress emphasized. The program supports more families headed by women than those headed by men. Social programs also employ more women as social workers and teachers than men.

But self-interest also could explain men's stronger support for military spending.

"It's interesting to contrast how government spending that tends to affect women and children more is not construed in the same way as government spending that tends to affect men more," she says. "I could very well argue that the U.S. military is the biggest affirmative action program for men that there has ever been.

"Initially, we wouldn't even let women in. Now we let them in, but we tell them that they can't rise above a certain rank because they can't go to combat, so they can't [assume] the roles the military most values. The military gives men job opportunities and a chance to rise in the military hierarchy, so that a man can serve himself and his country at the same time.

"Interestingly, researchers who have attributed women's support of social welfare programs to self-interest have not made the same accusation about men's greater support of military and defense programs," she says.

By contrasting the sexes' different impacts and opinions on welfare and military spending, Pratto says, "you can see that it's useful to think about the intersection of gendered psychologies with gendered roles and with self-interest but not to assume they are all one in the same thing.

"Self-interest doesn't explain, for example, why white women are more concerned about racial equality than white men are, and it doesn't explain why women are less opposed to immigration or gay and lesbian rights than men."

The sexes differing stance on equality, she says, "might come about because men and women learn an orientation toward social hierarchy or equality by the kinds of roles they play in a societies."

"Women have always been interested in the welfare of children ­ both within their own families and outside their families ­ to a greater extent than men, on average. That's true in their attitudes but also in the kind of roles they play in families, in political movements and in societies. I don't think it is as obvious to women as it is to Newt Gingrich that family issues are conservative issues."

History of gender gaps

Gender gaps were uncommon in voting patterns for political candidates immediately after women were granted suffrage in Britain, the United States, western Europe and Sweden, Pratto wrote in a paper she co-authored with two others for the British Journal of Social Psychology. In the 1950s, a slight tendency developed for women to support conservative candidates in higher proportions than men, but that reversed in the late '70s and '80s.

Scholars believed the modest gap in the '50s was mostly linked to demographic differences, such as women's greater longevity, lower rate of paid labor and greater religiosity. Older people, lower paid people and more religious people tend to more conservative voting patterns. Women still tend to be more religious than men, but overall, religiosity is declining in Western countries. More women are working outside the home, which also gives them greater exposure to a broader array of political issues.

Since the late 1970s, women in the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden have been more supportive of leftist political groups, while a higher proportion of men supported rightist or extreme right parties, Pratto says. Scholars have attributed the gap in many elections for national office as hawk-dove splits, with British women, for example, less hawkish than prime minister candidate Margaret Thatcher in 1983, and U.S. women less anxious to get tough with the Soviets than presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Future prospects

What does all this mean to the future of the Republican and Democratic parties?

Party leaders would be wise to include more women in policy shaping roles, Pratto says, "especially more women who have a better understanding of what most women in America are interested in politically."

"Although there are many more women in Bill Clinton's Cabinet now than in past presidents' Cabinets, they are either single or women whose children are older. That's also true of women in Congress," she says.

Republicans have some "fervent, principled women" in prominent party positions, but "if the Republicans think these women are speaking for all women, they are going to be deceived."

Men in political leadership never have been typical of the average voter either. They tend to be more elite, but Pratto speculates that fact might not bother male voters as much as it does women.

"An interesting question is whether male voters can see themselves as being represented more by men like that than women can," Pratto says, "because they believe more in a social hierarchy in which men have played more elite roles."