The term “gender gap” gets thrown around a lot in political analysis. But beyond differences in attitudes and priorities, researchers have long noted a clear distinction between the sexes: Women, as a group, are less informed about politics than men, and less likely to engage in the political process.
Newly published research finds an important exception to this rule. Arizona State University political scientists Kim Fridkin and Patrick Kenney report this surprisingly stubborn dynamic diminishes when a state is represented in the U.S. Senate by at least one woman.
Their study, published in the Journal of Politics, offers three important findings: “First, even at the start of the 21st century, women know far less about their senators than men. Second, this gap in political knowledge closes sharply when women senators represent women citizens. Third, and perhaps most importantly, women citizens are more active in politics when represented by women senators.”
"Even at the start of the 21st century, women know far less about their senators than men. This gap in political knowledge closes sharply when women senators represent women citizens."
Fridkin and Kenney analyzed data from 36,500 people who took part in the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey. Participants were interviewed in October of that year and then again in November, after the election—a design intended to discover how their attitudes impacted their actual voting decisions.
That year, they note, 14 women were serving in the U.S. Senate, representing both large states such as New York and California and small ones such as Alaska and Maine. (The number has since increased to 20.)
The researchers examined whether participants could accurately describe each of their senators’ party affiliation and ideology, as well as how they voted on seven key issues, including the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, immigration reform, and raising the minimum wage.
They report women were “more likely to recall correctly their senators’ ideology and party when answering questions about women senators.” Similarly, Fridkin and Kenney found the gender gap in knowledge about how senators vote “diminishes when women are evaluating women senators.”
The researchers then looked at political engagement, focusing on whether participants voted, gave money to a candidate, belonged to a political organization, or “tried to persuade someone to vote for a particular candidate.” After controlling for such factors as education, they found “as the number of women senators in a state increases, people’s political activity increases.”
“We can conclude that the gender of the senator is indirectly influencing women’s participation by increasing women’s level of knowledge about their peers,” they write.
While all this has fascinating implications for both the changing electorate and future policy priorities, one tantalizing question remains unanswered: If a female senator can inspire such a sizable shift, what would be the impact of a woman president?