Mind the Gap – Engaging Young Women in Politics

Studies from Verba, Burns and Schlozman (1997) and Inglehart (1981) have documented how women tend to express a lower level of interest in politics than men. Varying theories have been put forward in order to try and explain this trend, including a lack of both descriptive and substantive representation, gender gaps in issue preference and patriarchic political systems. Evidence from the 15 countries surveyed so far for the Millennial Dialogue suggests that this trend is continuing amongst the next generations of women, where women have been less likely to say they were ‘very interested’ in politics in every single country. With women in Western Europe attaining higher education levels than men and experiencing unprecedented levels of gender equality, why are they still falling behind men when it comes to political interest?

It is important to explore the causes of the gender gap in political interest, as it is a problem for a democracy if it is unable to engage all of its citizens. Such discrepancies lead to lower levels of representation of groups who do not engage with the system, undermining democracy both in descriptive and substantive terms. Although women are less interested in politics, they are just as likely as men to vote, but less likely to take part in party politics.

There are several theories as to why women express such low interest in politics compared to their male counterparts, one is that lower levels of descriptive representation of females in parliament causes women to lack interest. Data from the Millennial Dialogue confirms that descriptive representation could partly impact on levels of political interest. In Hungary just 3% of females said they were ‘very interested’ in politics, making them 63% less interested in politics than Hungarian males. This is the largest gender gap registered in the countries surveyed. Hungary also has the lowest level of female representation in parliament of the countries surveyed at 10%.

On the other hand the country with the lowest gender gap was Norway where males were “only” 21% more likely to be ‘very interested’ in politics than females. Norway has been a forerunner for the increase in women’s representation both in political arena and the private sector, setting quotas to increase female representation in parliament and boardrooms. At 40% Norway has the highest level female representation in parliament of the 15 countries surveyed to date. Evidence from Hungary and Norway points to a strong role for descriptive representation in decreasing the gender gap in political interest; however data from Germany and Turkey indicate that we must look beyond representation to find out how we can increase level of political interest amongst young women.

Germany has the second largest gender gap in political interest with males being more than twice as likely as women to say they were ‘very interested’ in politics. Yet, Germany has nearly as high a percentage of female representatives as Norway and like Norway also has a female head of state. In Turkey, on the other hand, just 15% of representatives in parliament were women as of December 2015, yet 18% of women said they were ‘very interested’ in politics and Turkey had one of the lowest gender gaps in political interest. Maybe looking at gender equality representation could help explain the gender gap in political interest?

Looking to Norway again, who have the lowest gender gap in political interest, substantive representation is also very high. Norway ranks number two on the World Bank’s Gender Gap Report, indicating a high level of gender equality in society. Yet, substantive representation in itself doesn’t seem to be able to explain the gender gap, as both France and Germany have relatively big gender gaps, but at the same time both rank within the top 15 in the World Bank’s Gender Gap Report. Turkey ranks number 130 in the World Bank report, yet has a much smaller gender gap in political interest than both France and Germany.

When neither levels of gender equality nor levels of descriptive representation seem to fully explain the gender gap in political interest, one must conclude there are other factors’ contributing to female’s lower level of political interest. It has been noted in several studies that in addition to a gender gap in levels of political interest, there is also a difference between the issues that males and females are concerned about. Looking at both Norway and Germany we can see that women are more likely to be concerned about the environment and less concerned about developments in new technology than males.

If politicians are to engage young women in politics they need to look at the issues they care about, which doesn’t just mean talking about “women’s issues” such as childcare, gender pay gaps and taxes on feminine hygiene products (although these are arguably important issues which could help ensure gender equality). Studies have shown that women are less interested in war, defence and international politics, but more interested in local politics and the environment. Looking at data from the Millennial Dialogue, males were more likely to think defence should be a high priority for public spending in all countries except Hungary and Bulgaria and females were more likely to feel priority should be given to the environment.

A final theory on why young females are less interested in politics is that they find party politics and the hierarchical political system unappealing. Testament to this the Millennial Dialogue finds that women in all countries, with the exception of Norway and Ireland, were much more likely to say they “generally do not trust politicians at all”. In Hungary 49% of women said they did not trust politicians at all compared to 40% of men. This shows politicians have their work cut out if they want to get young women involved in party politics.

In conclusion, if the next generations of girls and women are not to become disaffected with politics, politicians need to ensure that more women are represented in parliament, the issues women care about are discussed and a change is needed in the traditional hierarchical and patriarchal party system.

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