Gender-based differences in political knowledge are ubiquitous in the United States and abroad, with men regularly having higher levels of observed knowledge than women. Yet, the gender gap defies easy explanation. Early studies viewed gender differences in knowledge through the lens of standard resource models of participation, making them fairly immutable. By contrast, recent research argues that the gender gap stems from measurement factors that are unrelated to knowledge (question wording, formatting, and the like). Indeed, the implication of this latter view is that knowledge among men and women would be indistinguishable were it not for flawed instrumentation. Notwithstanding the vast number of studies on this topic, it is not clear why—or whether—gender differences in knowledge exist.
Our recent article in Political Behavior clarifies the field’s understanding of this phenomenon by examining the conditions under which gender differences in knowledge can be altered. More specifically, we conduct a series of laboratory and survey experiments in which informational resources are made equitable across gender groups and then determine whether there is differential “take-up” of that information by men and women (using “best practices” for measuring political knowledge). Our analyses reveal that the gender gap is neither immutable nor illusory. Across multiple topics, there is almost always an observable gender gap in baseline levels of political knowledge, despite the use of survey practices that should counteract this tendency. However, a simple information treatment often reduces this gap.
In order to show that these effects do not merely reflect an increase in short term recall (as a result of forced exposure to an experimental manipulation), we leverage naturally occurring variation in media attention to two major policy issues (Medicare, immigration) and examine knowledge of men and women before and after these news events. This represents a tough test because considerably more time elapses between the real-world news “treatment” and our assessment of knowledge. Consistent with our results from the lab and survey experiments, there were dramatic knowledge gains among the subset of women who were exposed to news coverage about the two issues.
Taken together we show that information, supplied either through the controlled setting of a randomized experiment or a “real-world” news treatment, can reduce or in some cases eliminate the oft-noted male advantage in political knowledge. This is an important finding because we are able to demonstrate that the gender gap in knowledge is not immutable, as one might expect based solely upon the political resources possessed by men and women. Similarly, in contrast to the original knowledge gap hypothesis which states that information infusions have an uneven effect on learning across groups, there was no evidence that gender differences in knowledge worsened as a result of our treatments. To wit, our results indicate that there is a substantial degree of malleability in the knowledge gap among men and women. This is a remarkable finding if only because previous researchers have been largely unable to make this gap disappear.