Is More TV the Only Way to Get Women to Pay More Attention to Politics?

The Atlantic
Is More TV the Only Way to Get Women to Pay More Attention to Politics?
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Is More TV the Only Way to Get Women to Pay More Attention to Politics?

Why do women know less about politics than men? It's not because they're more illiterate than men (they're not). It's not because women are dumber than men (they're not). And it's not because of discrimination, either. New research from Britain's Economic and Social Research Council shows that even in countries with more gender equality generally, women still know less about politics than men. 

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University of London professor James Curran interviewed 10,000 people in 10 countries and found that "the gap between men and women’s political knowledge was greater in Norway — a country with one of the best records for gender equality — than in South Korea," the London Telegraph's Cathy Newman reports. You might know Norway as the country where men are legally required to take paternity leave.

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The research, conducted by Britain's Economic and Social Research Council, found that British men scored an average of 58 percent on a multiple-choice news quiz, while British women scored 39 percent. That follows what we often see in American public polls. In January 2012, for example, Pew Research Center found that there was a gender gap on political knowledge even among Tea Partiers — people you can think of as politics superfans. Only 45 percent of female Tea Partiers knew Mitt Romney had been the governor of Massachusetts, but 72 percent of male Tea Partiers knew that.

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The researchers think they've found an easy solution to the problem: put more women on TV news so more women will watch TV news. "It’s enormously off-putting for women to be looking at the news as always being about men," Curran told the Telegraph. "Politics is projected as a man's world and that encourages a sense of disconnection." Only 34 percent of British hard news stories interviewed or cited women. Jon Stewart might have declared that cable news shouting matches were "hurting America," but these researchers say not watching them is hurting women's brains.

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We don't claim authority on the state of British media, but at least in America, this claim does not stand up. CNN's audience is perfectly split between the sexes, according to a 2012 study from Pew Research Center while MSNBC's was 60 percent female. NPR listeners were 51 percent female. Maybe by moving Megyn Kelly to prime time, Fox News' 52 percent female audience will get even femalier. So more girls than boys are watching the hours and hours of political stuff being churned out every day by these channels, it's either not sinking in — or rather, it's not sinking in with the millions of women (and men) who don't watch cable news.

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The London Independent notes that a 2001 study showed that in states where both senators were men, 65 percent of men could name at least one of them, while only 51 percent of women could. But in states that had at least one female senator, 75 percent of men could name one of them, and 79 percent of women could. But in 2001, there were only 13 female senators in the U.S. It would be easy to remember if you had one, since they were so rare. (There are now 20.) But here's the conundrum: How do you get more women to run for office if more women won't pay attention to politics in the first place?

I think there is only one solution: shame. We must impose a high social cost on women not knowing things about politics. We need judgey gasps. Gasps and cackles like the ones The Atlantic Wire's Philip Bump heard when he was a juror for the Brooke Astor trial. Bump explains: "During closing arguments, the assistant district attorney made a joke about someone buying fancy shoes, like from Steve Madden. And instantly, his female colleague every woman on the jury started laughing. He and the male jurors were like, 'Huh, OK. Steve Madden.'" We need that kind of eruption from women if someone were to suggest Vladimir Putin as a shining example of democracy. Or that the current Congress has been an exemplar of legislative productivity.

Being bored by politics is a pretty lame excuse, ladies. 

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