Gender, Political Knowledge and Descriptive Representation: The Impact of Long-Term Socialization

Author Summary by Ruth Dassonneville and Ian McAllisterAJPS-Author Blog Post - Gender, Political Knowledge, and Descriptive Representation - Dassonneville - McAllister

With the exception of a small number of countries, women are under-represented—sometimes very significantly—in parliaments around the world. One consequence of this under-representation is that women engage less and take less interest in the political world. This article deals with one aspect of the problem—political knowledge. For as long as public opinion surveys have asked about political knowledge, women have been found to have lower levels of knowledge when compared to men. Various explanations have been advanced to account for this persistent gender gap, ranging from gender differences in income and education, to differences in political interest and media attention. Others have argued that the gender gap in political knowledge is a result of measurement and questionnaire design issues. However, even when these differences are taken into account, they have not explained the gender gap in political knowledge around the world. Another explanation is needed.

One promising line of recent enquiry has been descriptive representation. More precisely, this predicts that the more women there are in politics, then the more attention women will pay to politics and hence the more knowledge they will accumulate. However, this approach has also failed to account for the gender gap in political knowledge. In this article we show that having more women elected representatives does matter in increasing women’s political knowledge, but only among those who have just begun to vote. Our findings are based on comparative analyses of the gender difference in knowledge in two large-scale comparative datasets, and our results appear robust to different operationalizations of political knowledge and to controlling for other indicators of gender equality.

Our finding, that women elected representatives only matter among the young, is in line with political socialization, which predicts that the impact of political context will be greatest during young adulthood. The results show that as the proportion of women elected representatives increases, the gender gap in knowledge will decline, as women pay more attention to politics. However, such a change in political knowledge will take much longer than many have supposed since the impact is limited to the young.

About the Authors: Ruth Dassonneville is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Montreal. Ian McAllister is Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University.  Their article, “Gender, Political Knowledge and Descriptive Representation: The Impact of Long-Term Socialization” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

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