By Lauren Somers
In my Queer theory class with Dr. Nekola this past fall, we discussed the politics of difference. How people are different, how differences come about and affect minorities, and where these differences may be accepted or rejected. These differences sometimes bring about gaps in social hierarchy, gaps in participation, gaps in your teeth, gaps everywhere. I find that the political gap between the sexes is one of the more powerful and interesting, and so have other 127 authors here, here, and here. As there are widespread and persistent gaps between men and women in political behavior beyond the hill, we might expect Denison men to participate more in politics than Denison women…or is there something unique about Denison that causes these gaps to close?
This past semester, my Senior Seminar (yeah, I know I’m a junior) in Political Science put out a survey to assess public engagement at Denison and many of the forces known to cause gender gaps, such as personality differences. For instance, Denison women are quite a bit more agreeable (the ‘Big 5’ personality trait of avoiding conflict and preferring harmony) than men (p<.01). Since politics is about engaging disagreement, we might think that agreeableness would undercut women’s political activity as it has out in society.
Women at Denison are also a bit more risk avoidant (p<.01), which is what we see in the “real world” too. Men and women are equally likely to agree that they are “very cautious about making major changes in life,” but women are more likely to disagree that it is easy to take risk and to break the rules to have exciting experiences. Like agreeableness, risk aversion undercuts political behavior through the willingness to challenge and change the rules. That is, this too suggests there should be a gender gap in public engagement.
So, how publicly engaged are Denison men and women? Do these personality differences we found create gaps in participation? The left panel below shows that there is no difference between men and women in the willingness to deliberate a public policy issue with others – one of the most demanding, risky forms of political activity. There’s also no gender gap in broader, off-campus political activity either. Out of four activities we measured (working for a campaign, attending rallies, displaying a button or sticker, and donating money), both male and female Denisonians do about 0.8 of them on average.
So, what’s going on? Most of the students will have similar values of education, respect, and will at least attempt to be “discerning moral agents.” Although there may be many different socioeconomic factors at play, many of us live the average college life filled with Ramen and Papa John’s and meal plans so money may not be the indicator it is out in the world. And although we have a predominantly white campus (hovering around 70%), we are considered fairly diverse especially for a small liberal arts college. This means that many of the big indicators of participation are leveled here. Surely the most equalizing force is not a variable at all – we are all receiving the same education. Sure we all have different majors and many of us have different experiences at Denison but we are all college students receiving a degree from an accredited university, essentially equalizing education level. Maybe education is the answer to closing the gender gap that we have seen for years in politics, specifically in political participation. At least on Denison’s campus this may be the answer or maybe Denisonians are just wildly progressive in terms of gender norms.
Lauren Somers is a wannabe fitness guru who loves shows about cults and vampire slayers. When she is not huddled in her room napping she can be found in the Knapp lab napping in an elephant onesie.