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The Political Gender Gap: Do Women Care More About Fairness?

In experiments, males more overconfident, favor weaker social safety nets.

Source: DevalKulshrestha-WikimediaCommons

Numerous factors may lie behind the gender gap in American presidential politics. One of these, which gets little attention, may be that men and women tend to differ in their views of the desirability of a more equal distribution of income. In the American National Elections Studies of 1992 – 2012, women answered a variety of questions—about the desirability of aiding the poor, whether federal spending on welfare should increase, and whether government has pushed too far on equality of rights—with significantly more pro-poor and pro-equality answers, on average, than men. Responses in the World Values Survey, a large scale social survey now conducted in more than sixty countries, suggest that the U.S. is far from unique in this respect. Respondents in the WVS are asked to indicate where their own view lies on a scale from 1 = “We need larger income differences as incentives for individual effort” to 10 = “Incomes should be made more equal.” Based on versions of the survey conducted between 2005 and 2014, women’s responses tended towards significantly higher numbers in both Western Europe and China, and likewise (although to lesser degrees) in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

In laboratory decision experiments on desire to redistribute income from higher to lower earning participants conducted by myself and collaborators at Brown University, and in similar experiments conducted in several western European countries and in China, female participants tended to choose significantly greater degrees of redistribution, both before and after controlling for a variety of potentially confounding factors.

An interesting feature of the experimental decision findings is that in addition to possible gender differences in caring or fairness concerns per se, differences between men and women with regard to tendency towards overconfidence in own performance and the interaction of this factor with the desire to protect against income risk, appear also to contribute to the difference. Specifically, male and female participants both engaged in tasks including answering questions in a general knowledge quiz and playing a computer game, with pre-tax payout from the experiment determined by relative performance. The subjects were asked how much they would like to tax the pre-tax earnings of participants, redistributing the proceeds equally. On average female subjects favored greater taxation and redistribution of the experimental earnings. Upon analysis, my collaborators and I find that female participants were far less overconfident regarding their own relative performance on these tasks than were their male counterparts. That is, both men and women on average overestimated how their performance would come out relative to that of others, but men were a lot more overconfident than women. Under the conditions of the experiment, it’s in the self-interest of a participant who expects an average or low performance, hence a relatively low pre-tax payout, to choose a high level of taxation and redistribution. Given this, their lower overconfidence levels meant that female participants acted more rationally to protect their earnings via redistribution. Women also tested as being on average more risk averse than men in these experiments, as has been found in other studies.

An upshot is that women’s stronger concerns for a protective social safety net may in part result from rational self-interest in the face of an uncertain world. That is, when individuals’ and families’ economic fortunes are subject to considerable uncertainty and there are significant chances of suffering bad outcomes in some periods, it can be prudent to have in place a degree of social insurance, even for strictly selfish reasons. Purchasing insurance against, say, unemployment, is usually impossible in the marketplace. The rational motive for social insurance applies as much for men as for women, but an irrational tendency to underestimate their personal chances of bad outcomes may discourage men from acting accordingly.

* This post is based on data analysis that is currently in progress and unpublished. Details of the multivariate regressions on the basis of which the statements regarding the American National Elections Survey, the World Values Survey, and the mentioned laboratory decision experiments are based are expected to appear in a paper which that will follow up on Durante, Putterman and van der Weele, 2014, “Preferences for Redistribution and Perceptions of Fairness: An Experimental Study.”


Buser, Grimalda, Putterman and van der Weele, "Overconfidence and gender gaps in redistributive preferences: cross-country experimental evidence," forthcoming in Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Putterman, Overconfidence, inequality, and 'just world' thinking,

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