America's Deep Rift on Gender Issues

New polling reveals how partisanship affects people’s views of the roles of men and women.

A woman holding a "Vote" sign with the Obama campaign logo as the "o"
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The headline on the big new gender survey from the Pew Research Center begins, “On Gender Differences, No Consensus”— and that could have been the report’s entire conclusion, too. The survey, released today, reveals deep divides in Americans’ perspectives on gender norms, including by political affiliation:

  • Republicans appear to be more comfortable with traditional femininity and masculinity: Republican men are more likely to consider themselves “very masculine” than Democratic men are. Republican women are also slightly more likely than Democratic women to consider themselves “very feminine.” According to an earlier Pew survey, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say that changes to traditional gender norms have led to a host of benefits, like success at work and and in marriage.

Pew Research Center

  • Democrats think gender norms can and should be shaped by society: Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say the differences between men and women are the product of societal expectations, rather than biology. And they are more likely than Republicans, by far, to say young boys should be encouraged to take part in activities that are usually associated with girls.
  • Republicans see a war being waged against boys: Fewer Republicans than Democrats say society looks up to manly men—perhaps because they are also more likely to feel the push for gender equality has already gone too far. Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to feel society is “too accepting” when it comes to women taking roles that are typically associated with men, and the same is true of men taking women’s roles. This mirrors another finding from this Pew survey: Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say we should do more to urge girls to be leaders. Meanwhile, a majority of Republicans say there is too little emphasis on leadership for boys, a sentiment only a third of Democrats agreed with. Most Democrats think we should do more to teach girls to stand up for themselves; Republicans are more likely than Democrats to think the same thing about boys. Among those who do feel society respects masculinity, Republicans “overwhelmingly say this is a good thing,” the Pew researchers write. Meanwhile, “Democrats aren’t convinced ... almost identical shares say this is a good thing as say it is a bad thing.”

Of course, the recent wave of sexual-harassment allegations in politics have shown that people of all parties are capable of mistreating women. But this Pew survey and others reveal how, even though society’s ideas about gender are changing rapidly, Republicans are less likely to endorse those changes.

A poll conducted by PRRI and The Atlantic between October 5 and October 9 of last year found Trump supporters were more likely than Clinton supporters to feel that society punishes men just for acting like men. In that poll, Republicans, conservatives, and Trump supporters were also far more likely than liberals, Democrats, or Clinton supporters to think that society was becoming “soft.”

Social-science research suggests gender beliefs are an inherent part of what it means to be a liberal or conservative. As NPR’s Hidden Brain team reported, Republicans tend to have a “strict father” view of the world, in which strong figures decide what is best for the family (or the country). Democrats, meanwhile, tend to support the “nurturant parent” model, in which parents (and leaders) “feel their job is to empathize with their child, to know what their child needs, and to have open two-way discussions with their child,” the NPR reporters write. Those fundamental beliefs might later map onto more positive views of masculinity, in Republicans, and more free-flowing ideas about rules for men and women, in the case of Democrats. In academic studies, people are even more likely to describe the GOP in masculine terms, and the Democrats in feminine ones.

The 2016 election revealed a desire for better wages and conditions for working-class people of both parties. But on cultural issues—including gender—there still seems to be “no consensus.”