What Prevents & What Drives Gendered Ideological Polarisation?
Across much of the world, men and women think alike. However, in countries that are economically developed and culturally liberal, young men and women are polarising. As chronicled by John Burn-Murdoch, young women are increasingly likely to identify as ‘progressives’ and vote for leftists, while young men remain more conservative. What explains this global heterogeneity?
Men and women tend to think alike in societies where there is
Close-knit interdependence, religosity and authoritarianism, or
Common culture and mixed gendered offline socialising.
Gendered ideological polarisation appears encouraged by:
Feminised public culture
Social media filter bubbles
1) What suppresses a gender divide?
a) Close-knit, interdependent, religious communities encourage conformity
In poorer communities, people lack the security of salaries and social insurance. They are perched on a cliff edge of precarity - ever vulnerable to negative shocks from ill-health, injury, job-loss, and climate breakdown. Where nepotism is rife and rule of law is weak, it’s imperative to have allies. Distrusting outsiders, many prefer to do business with kin. Families stick together - not just in terms of commerce and cooperation, but also leisure and socialising.
If children are socialised to put family first, then remain reliant on close-knit networks, beholden to uniform social policing, there is little scope for polarisation. Deviance is sternly punished, since people either believe it is morally improper or risks social censure. Let me illustrate with examples from Morocco, India, Turkey and Canada.
During Ramadan, my friend and I were shopping for iftar (the feast eaten after sunset). Walking through the crowded medina, all the dates looked the same. I wondered why we were trekking so far? Layla explained,
“We buy from our cousin, because they’re trustworthy”.
Strong family bonds were crucial, especially when her father had struggled economically. But they also created restrictions. Layla confided in me that she had previously loved women, but cut off contact because “It’s against the religion”. When she started dressing like a tomboy, her father was furious. In socially conservative Fes, there are strong penalties for being openly gay. Only when she migrated alone for work in Dubai could she finally embrace her desires. On Instagram, she posts butch selfies. Another friend (Salma) was part of a secret atheist group on Facebook, and drank water on our hike to Borj Sud during Ramadan, but this was all done covertly. Both women publicly conformed for fear of social disapproval, enforced by their parents.
Thanks to economic growth, millions of Indian women have become educated, curious, and proud of their achievements. But their aspirations are often curtailed. India is caught in what I call “The Patrilocal Trap”. Since caste networks are paramount and ostracism is enormously costly, daughters are socialised to marry, please their in-laws and stay put.
Privately, many Indian women desperately seek a loving, respectful husband like Shah Rukh Khan. Shrayana Bhattacharya explains this brilliantly,
“Most of us are expected to couple up early. So you smile and suffer through the mounting indignities.. A man with multiple failed businesses laughs at his date’s successful ventures. Dating in Delhi feels like an incessant confrontation with one’s worst insecurities”.
One Indian woman is quoted as saying,
“Maryada means self-discipline.. never express desire, never buy things for yourself”.
Shah Rukh Khan is enormously popular, argues Bhattacharya, because he embodies a masculinity that many Indian women desire, yet struggle to find. As women remark,
“We’d never seen a man talk to women with such respect and love (izzat aur pyaar se), never seen a man pay this kind of attention (dhyaan) to a woman”
“In real life, there is no Shah Rukh. All men are like Salman. Women have to fight with tradition and have to accept losing the fight”.
Just like Morocco, close-knit kinship and social policing reinforce conformity, preventing women from bucking out.
In Konya, I spent a week with a very pious family. Her father had a splendid library of religious books and she was veiled. Together, we interviewed their imam and the leading Sufi Sheikh. Everyone was reading the same Quran, respecting the same scholars. There was no debate over scripture, nor difference of opinion.
One day, we went to lunch gathering. Zehra had recently married into the family and was now spending everyday with her mother-in-law. She had no independent work or social life; she spent all day with housewives in their 50s. Three months into marriage, Zehra was bored and unhappy. But she wasn’t resisting. That was life.
Close-knit, interdependent, religious communities foster conformity
If everyone relies heavily on reciprocity, ostracism is extremely costly, and no one wants to seem weird. Families socialise their children to respect their elders and put family first. Children internalise the responsibility to preserve their family’s reputation. Authoritarianism exerts further force, crushing any spirit of resistance (as I saw in Uzbekistan).
Religiosity matters too. If everyone fears Hell and defers to imams, there’s little dissent. And if close-knit communities all appear deeply religious, sacrosanct teachings may go unquestioned. Social media won’t necessarily make women ‘woke’. Back in Toronto, I had lunch with a brilliant 26 year old, veiled Pakistani immigrant. Happily married and living with her in-laws, she detailed how her step-sisters are closely policed. Brothers call them up to check their whereabouts and ask for video verification. Her female friends have often been pressured to marry men from Pakistan (sometimes their cousins). Men’s honour still depends on female propriety. Despite these strictures, there’s little feminist resistance on Canadian Pakistani Tiktok.
Close-knit interdependence, religosity and authoritarianism are not the only forces that breed ideological conformity. In the West, I’d credit uniform cultural production and mixed gendered socialising.
Back When I was a Girl
My teenage years were quite typical for a middle-class Western Millennial (born in 1986).
I grew up in a commuter town in the Kentish countryside. We didn’t have smart phones, online games, or personal entertainment. Our TV had four channels. After 6pm, it was a choice of BBC News or the Simpsons. The whole family read the same newspaper. There was little prospect of polarisation.
My social circle comprised both male and female friends. Over the holidays, they came to play Nintendo. Mario Kart was a non-networked game - much more enjoyable with friends. Cross-legged on the carpet, we raced as Toad, Diddy Kong and Peach Princess. When we were too young for pubs, I hosted ‘garage parties’. I swept the concrete floor, arranged the the white plastic chairs, then others shared beers and cigarettes. Never classy, but always great fun!
In the early 2000s, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo brought out online games, but they were rather expensive. Instead, my school pals studied and socialised together - all in the same echo chamber, with no gender divide.
Mixed friendships cultivate empathy
Everyone has their own personal struggles. Unaware of another person’s trials and tribulations, we may think they have it ‘easier’. Through my research, I’ve learnt how empathy can be fostered by mixed gender friendships.
In Catalonia today, feminism is a common topic of conversation. Young women are publicly criticising inequalities; some are also educating their male friends. Santiago (who’s just finished school) shared examples of his friends resisting machismo.
After being jilted, one guy said women are whores (puta). She replied “No, a woman may decide who they wish to go out with”.
Groups of guys can get rowdy, especially when drinking and watching football. Santiago’s female friends complained, they wanted to leave. He learnt that aggression made them uncomfortable and thereafter he became more sensitive.
Kissing on the cheek is a traditional Spanish greeting. But Santiago’s female friends find this too intrusive. They prefer to shake hands with strangers. By speaking out and supporting each other, young Catalonians are creating a public sphere in which women feel more comfortable.
Seeing their discomfort and defiance, keen to preserve their friendship, Santiago listens and learns. He actually feels more comfortable with women, they don’t pressure him to be macho.
This is entirely consistent with a large volume of research corroborating Gordon Allport’s ‘contact hypothesis’. When people collaborate in joint projects, they tend to forge solidaristic ties and reject discrimination.
In sum, the gender divide can be suppressed by two forces:
Close-knit interdependence, social policing, religosity and authoritarianism
Shared cultural production, as well as offline friendships.
What Fosters a Gender Divide?
Gendered ideological polarisation seems encouraged by:
Social media filter bubbles
Cultural liberalisation, encouraging people to speak out.
Below, I discuss South Korea and China, then North America and Europe.
Suppose you’re a 30 year old guy in South Korea. You’re working ultra long hours, returning home late, but still low in the company hierarchy, bossed about by demanding superiors. At work, women are servile underlings, expected to pour the tea and act like secretaries. But romantically, women won’t give you a chance. Dating is a nightmare - given male-heavy sex ratios and your middling paycheque. It’s a recipe for frustration. Rationally, you could invest in self-improvement, hit the gym and try to be more charming. But there’s also a supportive fraternal community saying something along the lines of,
“It’s not your fault. Women are greedy, grasping, hypergamous kimchi bitches. They have a vastly easier time - exempt from conscription, with no pressure to provide for their families, they can easily marry rich. Now look at this video I took of a rag [whore] undressing in a public loo. She’s called Hwa Young, employed at Hyundai”.
“Great footage, brother! HAHAHA”.
That’s not a direct quote. I’m paraphrasing the Korean manosphere (based on my interviews and Hawon Jung’s excellent book).
As long as Korean men continue to dominate management and socialise with other men, they are immersed in cultures of self-righteous sexism. 80% of men in their twenties believe there is serious gender discrimination against men. It’s difficult to see what would unseat this antipathy.
South Korean women, meanwhile, are increasingly feminist. Inspired and emboldened, they have shared stories of abuse and publicly supported each other. Together, they chorus “Not your fault”. South Korea has a growing gender divide.
China’s rapid economic growth, urbanisation, university enrolment and rise of salaried employment has spawned cultural liberalism. By migrating for study and work, young adults have become far more independent and free to form their own friendships. Gathering together, women make friends, bemoan unfairness, and discover more egalitarian alternatives. Emboldened by peers and feminist media, they come to expect and demand better.
Chinese men typically hang out with other men. Few have sisters - given ultra low fertility. So they do not necessarily learn about women’s concerns and frustrations. Social media is also rather sex-segregated. Baidu Tieba is mostly male, while Little Red Book skews female. Separately, they manufacture diverse perceptions. Patriarchal entitlements are cheered by all the men in the room. If a culturally homogenous group applauds a singular perspective, it appears entirely legitimate.
What might disrupt group think?
Caring relationships help build bridges - as Cheng explained to me:
“I used to be like one of those guys on the app [Baidu Tieba]. I sent the jokes to my girlfriend - calling fat girls names of tanks”. She said, ‘I’m uncomfortable with what you’re saying’… A girl was dating with many men, I called her a bitch, my girlfriend was very angry. I was unaware, there are very serious issues”.
Jing helped Cheng become more empathetic by sharing her feminist perspective. Concerned for her good opinion, he listened. Social media clearly does not inhibit empathetic mixed gendered friendships. But those immersed in homophilic filter bubbles may get trapped in ideological polarisation.
What’s Driving the West’s Gender Divide?
In the West, young men and women are ideologically diverging because women have become much more progressive, while young men remain more conservative.
Does this reflect:
Feminised public culture
Social media filter bubbles
Cultural entrepreneurs, like Andrew Tate?
Feminised Public Culture?
In the late 20th century, a female echo chamber was already emerging. As Western women forged careers as journalists, authors, script writers and publishers, they told their own stories, which resonated with other women. As early as 1997, most of the editorial and sales executives at Time Warner were women. By 2000, women held 50% of US book copyrights. By 2020, they authored the majority of new books. Their readers were often female.
Female publishing and readership plausibly encouraged a feminised ideology. But it fails to explain why why young American men hold more conservative views on gender than older men.
A wealth of research suggests that economic stagnation fuels sexist resentment, xenophobia, far-right voting, and zero sum mentalities. But is it just about economics?
Gefjon Off, Nicholas Charron and Amy Alexander examine ‘modern sexism’ across the European Union. Younger men are most likely to say,
“Advancing women's and girls' rights has gone too far because it threatens men's and boys' opportunities”.
Resentment is strongest among men who think that state institutions in their region are unfair, and live in regions with rising unemployment and acute job competition.
Off, Charron and Alexander’s analysis indicates that when men struggle to get ahead, are unable to achieve status, and think public institutions are unfair, they’re more likely to resent women’s gains. Brits born into areas with high unemployment are similarly more likely to say ‘“Husband should earn, wife stay at home”.
Economic frustration is also associated with support for the far-right - as shown by Rodríguez-Pose, Terrero-Dávila and Lee. Right-wing vote share is strongest in European places with high immigration and economic decline.
Xenophobia and sexist resentment both reflect men’s unmet desire for status. A fundamental feature of patriarchy is that men want to have high status. When men feel like they’re falling behind, unable to gain pre-eminence, forever ghosted by women on dating apps, they may react aggressively and endorse hostile sexism. This is a global trend, which I summarised here.
Zero sum mentalities
A new paper by Sahil Chinoy, Nathan Nunn, Sandra Sequeira and Stefanie Stantcheva examines beliefs that the world is ‘zero sum’: your success is my loss. If people believe that prizes are scarce then one person’s victory comes at another’s expense.
Zero-sum thinking holds on both the left and the right. It is associated with support for redistribution, awareness of racial and gender discrimination, as well as being anti-immigrant. Zero-beliefs are strongly associated with economic immobility. If individuals and their families have not experienced intergenerational upwards mobility, they tend to say that opportunities are scarce and fixed. Under a ‘zero-sum’ mentality, resentful hostility makes sense. Economic stagnation and intense competition foster jealousy.
Economics may not be a full explanation, however. Attitudes seem to be polarising in both the US and Europe even though the US is much wealthier.
Why are sexist resentment and xenophobia strongest among young men?
Why are the cultural effects skewed by age? In the UK and Germany, young men are more likely to resist immigration.
In previous work, John Burn-Murdoch used World Values Survey data on ‘zero sum beliefs’ to tell an important story. Globally, people who experienced high economic growth in their youth are much more likely to believe that everyone can thrive. Deceleration of economic growth has bred zero-sum mentalities.
The message is clear:
People who’ve personally seen and experienced upwards mobility are more likely to believe that everyone can thrive.
This is consistent with Gethin et al’s finding that that highly educated people tend to vote for left-wing and democratic parties. Rich and successful men are doing great! Their status is secure and they’re happy to share the pie.
Social media filter bubbles
Economic frustrations have clearly fuelled status insecurity and resentment. But as Chinoy and co-authors show, zero sum mentalities have no set direction. They may lean left or right. So economics alone cannot explain why some young men are choosing to be more conservative.
The big, structural shift that coincides with the growing gender divide is technology. Any teen with a smart phone can play online games, watch comedy, browse social media or listen to podcasts. Whatever appeals, there’s unlimited amusement.
News reporting become more negative: highlighting terrible catastrophes. Web users are also hyper-connected, alert to horror stories worldwide. After a terror attack anywhere in Europe, German Twitter users show affinity with the far right.
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram have been carefully designed to keep users hooked. Algorithms elevate sensational, radicalising articles. They also create ‘filter bubbles’ (a term coined by Eli Pariser), by feeding people stories that appeals to their priors. This reinforces righteous resistance and group think.
Corporate quests for advertising revenue create social networks that augment extremism - explain Acemoglu and Johnson. Corporate algorithms are a kind of ‘institution’: they set the rules of the (digital) game. A&J don’t actually use this terminology, but to me it seems consistent.
Polarised media fuels misperceptions and animosity. Those who have recently posted political content under-estimate common ground. Conservatives tend to have very distorted views of what progressives really think. Both extremes are politically vocal, they shout the loudest. Moderates (the numerical majority) are more disengaged and seldom heard. Moreover, in ideological ecosystems of like-minded others, people rarely need to justify their slurs. Pejorative stereotypes are seldom challenged with demands for substantiation.
“Who pays for dates?” is currently trending on the Western manosphere. Collectively, men bemoan unfairness. “If women want equality, they can share the tab!” I hear this same issue repeated by many 20-something men. As a cold, rational empiricist my internal monologue is,
“This is just a personal preference. Some people enjoy traditional gender roles (e.g. some men enjoy sexual dominance and/or financially providing for their girlfriends ). Those people can sort and select in the dating market”.
But on male-dominated filter bubbles this is hyped into another instance of sexist discrimination, where yet again men are disadvantaged. Cultural echo chambers thus legitimise anti-female resentment, far beyond economics.
Likewise for progressive women, filter bubbles may be exacerbating zero sum mentalities, reinforcing beliefs that the world is deeply unfair. David Rozado shows that after 2015 news media increasingly reported on gender and racial bias. It’s precisely this period when young women came of age.
Filter bubbles don’t have an inevitable ideology. Separately, they rally against authoritarianism, corruption, immigration, and racism. Charismatic entrepreneurs can capitalise on new technologies by building echo chambers that construct the legitimate targets for animosity, shaming and vilification.
Andrew Tate gained notoriety on social media for espousing sexism. A third of young British men now rate him favourably. As a multi-millionaire businessman - partying with attractive women in private jets and super yachts - he embodies many men’s idea of success. His wealth, confidence and charisma all aid ideological persuasion.
But he’s not just an exogenous shock, single-handedly brainwashing innocent young men. Rather, he’s surfing a wave of economic frustration, turbo-charged by corporate algorithms that fire-up sensationalist content for clicks.
Close-knit, interdependent, religious and authoritarian societies breed cultural conformity, since everyone is socially policed.
Older men and women in the West also tend to think alike, though for different reasons. They came of age at a time of common culture (e.g. the Simpsons) and mixed gendered socialising.
But now - in economically developed and culturally liberal societies - young men and women seem to be growing apart. Evidence points to economic frustrations, social media filter bubbles and cultural entrepreneurs. In economically stagnant regions, young men are struggling to achieve high status. Social media filter bubbles and cultural entrepreneurs have created echo chambers of righteous resentment, channelling frustrations and zero sum mentalities against females and foreigners. Meanwhile, many young women are immersed in filter bubbles that emphasise inequalities.
What might reverse the growing gap? The available evidence points to:
Breaking filter bubbles, regulating algorithms.
Failure to address this gap may impede heterosexual love, friendships and family formation.
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