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November 14, 2000

What's up with this gender gap?

Donna Laframboise
National Post

With the U.S. presidential election still in limbo, and a Canadian federal election two weeks away (not to mention the Ontario-wide municipal elections held yesterday), this seems an appropriate time to raise one of the more baffling riddles of democracy: Where electoral politics is concerned, why are women dumber than men?

I wish this were a joke, but it's not. Research shows the average woman on the street knows less about political candidates than the average man on the street.

One of the most recent of these studies -- The Primary Campaign: What Did the Candidates Say, What Did the Public Learn, and Did it Matter? -- was completed in March by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Six of the 11 researchers listed on the title page are female.

For three months, beginning in mid-December, telephone interviews were conducted with 30,000 randomly selected U.S. residents concerning the American primaries -- the process involving campaigning, advertising and public debates that selected George W. Bush as the Republican presidential candidate over John McCain, and Al Gore over Bill Bradley for the Democrats.

The section of the report dealing with sex differences begins: "Since 1980, women have voted either at the same or at a higher rate than men. Why then do scholars consistently find that women answer fewer questions correctly about political affairs than do men? This finding is especially perplexing given that the status of women has changed substantially in the last 50 years. Educational attainment is now comparable between the sexes. There is greater female presence in the labor force ... Nevertheless, gender differences in political knowledge persist."

Specifically, the interviewers asked questions about the candidates' backgrounds as well as questions about the position of the candidates on issues such as campaign funding, health care, abortion rights and foreign affairs.

"As in previous elections," reads the report, "men got more of the answers to questions about policy positions correct than did women ... Women scored higher in only one area of questions -- public campaign funding."

Women were more likely to admit they didn't know the answer to a question and more likely to give wrong answers to questions. Even more disturbing is the fact that this pattern holds true across the spectrum. Males are better informed than their female counterparts, says the report, irrespective of "age, race, education, income, marital status, party identification, media exposure, etc."

Although no one appears to have done comparable Canadian research, there's little reason to think the results would be different here. Men may not ask for directions behind the wheel, but when it comes to piloting the country, the stubbornly uninformed sex would appear to be female.

What's going on? We know raw IQ differences between men and women are so small they're practically irrelevant. While more men than women can be found at extreme ends of the IQ continuum (there are more male geniuses than female ones, but also more male morons), the average woman is the intellectual equal of the average man.

So if we aren't innately more dim-witted than men, why are we less likely to know where our political candidates stand -- even on "women's" issues such as abortion?

Critics of the the U.S. democratic system are fond of maligning that country's founding fathers. If they were such an enlightened crew, goes the criticism, why didn't women and blacks get the vote from the beginning?

In his latest book, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, American journalist Harry Stein suggests a simple explanation.

"Believing a highly informed electorate was essential to the nation's safety and well-being," he writes, the founding fathers "explicitly limited the franchise to those who, by virtue of education and the responsibilities they bore in daily life, appeared most likely to exercise it conscientiously. At the time that meant [white] male property holders."

These days, it's a given we're all taught to read and write, and we're all entitled to vote. It's also a given that election campaigns occur only once every few years -- paying attention is, therefore, hardly a hardship.

But opportunities are one thing, seizing them is something else. With the future of our communities and nation at stake, women need to take their political responsibilities more seriously.

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