WESTERN SOCIETY has no shortage of stereotypes about the activities and interests of men and women. Have they shaped how they think about politics? When asked the question “How interested would you say you are in politics?”, the share of men who answer “very” or “fairly” interested is significantly larger than that of women. This phenomenon has been observed across more than a dozen rich countries. It may have harmful consequences. If women are less interested in politics, they may be less likely to take part in it, including voting or running for office. And their views—particularly on social issues like workplace equality, parental leave and child care, which they care about on average more than men do—may not be adequately represented in government.
A new study by Marta Fraile of Central European University and Irene Sánchez-Vítores of the European University Institute finds that the gap in political interest appears early in life. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, which polled 10,300 people between 1991 and 2009, the authors find that the gender gap among 15-year-old Britons is already about 20 percentage points. For 25-year-olds, it grows to roughly 30 points. For better-educated people, who tend to be more engaged in politics, the divide is even greater. Among British adults with a university degree, the gender gap in interest in politics is a whopping 37 percentage points.
The authors suggest several possible explanations for the gap, ranging from social norms to the under-representation of women in public life. They note one intriguing correlation. In countries with more gender equality—as measured by an index developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality, a think-tank—the gap in interest in politics tends to be smaller. In Portugal, it is about 30 percentage points; but in Denmark and Finland, where women enjoy a comparatively high degree of equality, it is just 10 points.