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Conflict Avoidance and Gender Gaps in Political Engagement

Abstract

Why are women less likely to engage with politics as compared to men? I explore whether women avoid politics because of their lower levels of tolerance for conflict and disagreement. Men are more likely to say they enjoy a lively political argument, while women are more conflict avoidant. These differences in people’s orientations toward conflict are thought to contribute to gender gaps in political interest and engagement. I explore this using survey responses to a module of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. I find that people’s positive reactions to conflict better explain the decision to engage in politics than negative reactions to disagreements. While women report higher levels of conflict avoidance than men, gender gaps in political engagement cannot be explained by women’s greater aversion to conflict. Instead, gender gaps are better understood as a product of men’s comparatively higher levels of enjoyment of arguments and disagreements.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    While my discussion centers on the origins of gender gaps, it is important to note that I rely on measures of self-reported respondent sex rather than more nuanced measures of gender. This approach has limitations, given the differences between sex and gender (Bittner and Goodyear-Grant 2017; McDermott 2016).

  2. 2.

    As a baseline category, there are those who do not feel motivated to act in any particular way in the face of conflicts and disagreement.

  3. 3.

    Replication data is available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/OQBWQ4.

  4. 4.

    While inclusion in the pre-election survey would have been preferable, prior studies argue that conflict orientations reflect temperaments should be seen as causally prior to people’s actions with specific domains, a trait that finds its origins outside of politics in socialization and personality dispositions (Testa, Hibbing, and Ritchie 2014; Ulbig and Funk 1999).

  5. 5.

    The question wordings for all items are included in the supplemental appendix.

  6. 6.

    Factor analysis reveals two eigenvalues greater than zero. Parallel analysis confirms a two-factor solution, as two factors explain more variance that we would expect to find by chance in simulations based on random datasets of the same size. I also verified this result using confirmatory factor analysis, where I find that the items have higher loadings in the two-factor model than in the single factor model. In terms of model fit, the two-factor model also has a lower AIC and standardized root mean square residual compared to a single factor model.

  7. 7.

    The Cronbach’s alpha is 0.65 for both scales, which indicates somewhat lower internal consistency than would be desirable. That said, these alphas are higher than those found with other indicators of conflict orientations (Testa et al. 2014). In the Supplemental Appendix, I provide a scatterplot of the two conflict orientations.

  8. 8.

    I use survey weights in the models.

  9. 9.

    When disaggregating the news consumption measure, I find largely null results, with the exception that conflict-seeking is predictive of having watched national television news in the past day.

  10. 10.

    One might worry that the null results associated with conflict aversion might be due to the inclusion of conflict-seeking in the same specifications. While the two conflict orientations are moderately correlated (r = − 0.42), model diagnostics do not reveal multicollinearity concerns. Moreover, I find no evidence that conflict aversion predicts psychological engagement in politics in model specifications that exclude conflict-seeking orientations.

  11. 11.

    When interacting gender and conflict orientations, I find that conflict orientations predict political engagement in similar ways for both men and women. The only instance of a significant interaction effect is that conflict-seeking tends to better predict women’s campaign donations than men’s campaign donations.

  12. 12.

    In the models of psychological engagement with politics, I rely on regression for both the conflict orientations model and the outcome models. In the political participation models, I instead use logit for the outcome model.

  13. 13.

    I also explored whether the same patterns emerge when considering measures that ask about aversion to conflicts in politics specifically (rather than generalized aversion to conflicts). I find a similar pattern of results, where gender’s effects on political engagement are partially mediated by conflict-seeking but not conflict aversion. I describe these results in the supplemental appendix on pages 7 and 8.

  14. 14.

    While it is reasonable to see gender as an exogenous cause of the mediator and the outcomes, levels of the mediator likely follow from other unmodeled factors beyond gender alone.

  15. 15.

    As a robustness check, I also replicated the models using a set of strong controls, including indicators of emotional reactions to politics and levels of self-confidence. The same pattern of significant mediation effects persists in this alternate specification.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Talbot Andrews, Yanna Krupnikov, Whitney Manzo, Anand Sokhey, Michael Yontz, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Wolak.

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Appendix: Factor Analysis of Conflict Orientation Measures

Appendix: Factor Analysis of Conflict Orientation Measures

See Table

Table 5 Factor analysis, conflict orientation items

5 and Fig. 2 .

Fig. 2
figure2

Screeplot and parallel analysis, conflict orientation items

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Wolak, J. Conflict Avoidance and Gender Gaps in Political Engagement. Polit Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09614-5

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Keywords

  • Gender gaps
  • Political engagement
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Conflict seeking
  • Conflict aversion