Gender equality has been very much on the agenda in recent years. The challenges facing girls and women on many fronts are clear, including access to reproductive health care, protection from harassment in the workplace, labor force participation and rewards, and representation at the highest levels of politics and business.
But Americans are in general more worried about the prospects for boys than for girls, and for their own sons more than their own daughters, according to new data from the American Family Survey. Conservatives and men are most concerned about boys in general – but liberals are most worried about their own sons. These views may be influencing political trends, and in particular the growing partisanship gap between men and women.
The American Family Survey
The American Family Survey collects data from a representative sample of around 3,000 adults, combining several questions that are repeated each year with more detail on particular topics. The 2020 survey gathered information on how families are coping during the pandemic (top line: surprisingly well) and a range of other issues, but also on attitudes towards the challenges and prospects facing boys and girls.
Data from the AFS can be broken along various dimensions. Here we focus on three:
- We group respondents who describe themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal” together, and compare them to those who describe themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative.” We do not show results for respondents who describe themselves as “moderate” or “not sure.”
- Race. We consider white, Hispanic, and Black respondents (sample sizes for other groups are too small).
For the full survey results and methodology, see the 2020 American Family Survey report here. (Note that Richard Reeves serves as an advisor to the survey.) There is a large battery of questions on gender, including how well different institutions are serving girls and boys, which we do not address in this short piece.
Conservatives and men are worried about boys…
Americans are more worried about boys in general. Forty-one percent agree or strongly agree with the statement “I am worried about boys in the United States becoming successful adults,” compared to 33% saying the same for girls. But there is a big partisan divide here. Half (48%) of conservatives are worried about boys, and only 28% are worried about girls. Liberals, by contrast, are if anything slightly more worried about girls (44% compared to 41%). There is also a gender gap: 45% of men are worried about boys, only 31% are worried about girls. Overall, women are also more worried about boys than about girls, but by a much smaller margin (38% compared to 35%).
The overall picture is of men and conservatives being considerably more worried about boys than women and liberals.
…but all groups are worried about their own sons
The AFS also asks respondents about prospects for their own sons and daughters (for those who have them). This is important, because there is often a difference between how people feel about something in general, and how they feel about it in their own particular case. This “local v. global” effect has been seen in the AFS before, for example with regard to marriage (people think that marriage in general is falling apart, but that their own marriage is as strong as ever).
Respondents are about equally as worried about their sons and daughters as they are about boys and girls in general , with the gap between their worry for boys and girls shrinking modestly. But all four groups— liberals, conservatives, mothers, and fathers—are more worried about their sons than their daughters.
Conservatives are less worried about their sons than they are about boys in general. Strikingly, liberals are more worried about their sons than their daughters, even though as we showed above, they are more worried about girls in general. In fact, liberals are as worried about their own sons (48%) as conservatives are about boys in general (48%). On the other hand, liberals are a little less worried about their own daughters (40%) than about girls in general (44%).
Daughters are seen as having more “grit” than sons
Some of the other question in the AFS provide more context for these general findings, including the differences between conservatives and liberals. Parents are asked about how well their son(s) and/or daughter(s) cope with setbacks, intended as a measure of resilience, “stick-with-it-ness,” or grit. Parents see their daughters as more resilient, with 66% agreeing that “setbacks don’t discourage her. She doesn’t give up easily,” compared to 58% saying the same for their sons. Conservatives report higher levels of resilience in their children than liberals overall, and see a somewhat smaller gap in resilience between their sons and daughters on this question. Only half of liberal parents (50%) agree that their son is resilient, compared to 63% saying the same for their daughters, consistent with the higher levels of worry about sons among liberal parents reported above.
Parents, especially Black parents, think their daughters more likely to become President
The U.S. has never elected a female president, and lags badly in terms of gender equality in politics, as I’ve written elsewhere in “100 years on, politics is where the U.S. lags most on gender equality.” It is remarkable, then, that Americans are more likely to agree that their daughter could become president than their son (again, the results are for those who have sons and/or daughters).
The overall gap is small—just three percentage points—but there are differences by political affiliation, and on this particular question, by race too. Liberals are more likely to say that their daughter could become president compared to their sons by a seven percentage-point margin. Again, this is consistent with previous findings on liberals worried about their sons.
Most striking here are the gaps by race. Black parents are much more likely to say that either their son or daughter could become president than Hispanic or white parents. White respondents are in fact most downbeat on this score. Two in five Black parents said their daughter could become president; white parents were half as likely to say that their son could. These findings are consistent with the remarkable optimism of Black Americans in light of the legacy and reality of anti-Black racism, as reported by our colleague Carol Graham.
Worries about boys are not misplaced
We have sliced and diced the AFS data here to show some of the differences in worries about boys and girls. In some cases, the gaps are not huge. But it is striking that on all the general questions, America is more concerned about boys than girls in 2020. At first blush, these findings might seem counter-intuitive. In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the ongoing struggles to achieve equality for women, especially in the labor market, where progress in closing the pay gap seems to have largely stalled, and in leadership roles, especially in business and politics. (For more on these and other themes, see the Brookings series of papers marking the centenary of the 19th Amendment.) The potential impact of COVID-19 provoked new worries about gender equality this year, especially in terms of employment.
But there also appear to be some growing concerns about the prospects for boys—even among liberals when it comes to their own sons. These worries are neither ill-founded, nor incompatible with continued concerns about the barriers faced by girls and women. Boys and young men, especially those of color and/or from less advantaged backgrounds, are in fact struggling on a number of fronts, including education, mental health, family formation and employment.
Along with many other issues, gender equality has become politically polarized in recent years, with the feminist left pointing to a “war on women” and the anti-feminist right pointing to a “war on boys.” In reality, boys and girls and men and women face different and changing challenges. The need here is for a political and policy agenda that recognizes and responds to the specific problems of boys and girls, especially those of different racial and class backgrounds. There are a lot of feminists out there still fighting for women’s rights, but also worrying about their sons—both for good reason. Gender relations are not a zero-sum game. We will have much more to say on these issues over the coming months – watch this space.