Revisiting the Gender Gap in 2020: The Gender Gap in Political Engagement

This blog post is part of our “Revisiting the Gender Gap in 2020” symposium. In this blog series we are interviewing experts about the gender gap in American politics in an effort to shed light on how these gaps may impact the 2020 presidential election. These posts are curated conversations, moderated by email by CAWP faculty and staff, with gender and politics experts intended to illuminate the meaning of the gender gap, to explore what we understand and do not understand about women’s political behavior, and most importantly to address questions posed in the media about gender and the presidential election. The interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Political science research has shown that women are less engaged in politics at both the mass and the elite levels. Although women vote at higher rates than men, research has found that women are less interested in politics and display lower levels of internal political efficacy- a measure of one’s confidence to participate effectively in politics. Part of this gap seems to be rooted in how women perceive their role in political life. In other words, there has been a gap in “psychological engagement” in politics. However, particularly since the 2016 election, we’ve seen women become increasingly mobilized both in terms of the number of women running for office and in terms of women’s activism.

In the following interview, I talked to two gender and politics experts – Dr. Jennifer Wolak (University of Colorado at Boulder) and Dr. Melissa Deckman (Washington College) about the dynamics of this gap and how it may be consequential for the 2020 presidential election. This conversation sheds light on the nuances of the gender gap in engagement and how factors like emotions, self-confidence, and personal experiences with discrimination can shape the contours of women’s political engagement.


Gothreau: Research shows that there is a gender gap in “psychological” political engagement and that women tend to be less confident in their ability to participate in politics. However, we also know that women tend to vote at higher rates than men. What gender differences in political engagement and participation are you seeing/watching in election 2020? How, if at all, will these differences be consequential for the 2020 presidential election?

Wolak: Both women and men report being highly motivated to vote in 2020.  In an August 2020 survey, 78% of Americans say they are absolutely certain they will vote in the presidential election this fall. This is an upswing from the last presidential election, when only 66% of respondents in a September 2016 survey were confident that they would vote that fall. Yet the public’s heightened motivation to vote in 2020 do not appear to be gendered – as men and women seem to express similar levels of interest in participating in the 2020 election. 

Greater gender differences emerge when considering forms of participation beyond the voting act. Participation in protests and demonstrations from the Women’s March forward through Black Lives Matter have tended to attract women at greater rates relative men. In one June 2020 survey, 21% of women reported attending a protest, march or demonstration in the past two years, compared to only 13% of men who said the same. It will be interesting to see if the momentum from this protest engagement carries over into electoral participation. 

Deckman: While I expect that women will turn out at higher rates this fall to vote in 2020, which is consistent with more recent trends in voting behavior, I'll be curious to see if women will actually surpass men in terms of other forms of political engagement, especially given the extensive role that progressive women have played in the "resistance" movement to Donald Trump, which resulted in a record number of women running as Democrats in 2018. At the same time, the record number of women running for both parties in 2020 shows that conservative women may be mobilized to engage in politics at higher rates this election cycle as well, perhaps in part to counterbalance the narrative that women in politics largely hail from the political left. In terms of the 2020 presidential race, women's greater activism overall is likely to benefit the Democratic ticket given in sheer numbers that there are more women voters, women voters are more likely to identify as Democrats, and extensive polling shows Biden's lead with women voters to be higher than Clinton's lead in 2016. At the same time, if Trump can maintain his huge advantage with working class male voters, and peel off enough male voters of color, he may be able to mitigate the gender gap advantages enjoyed by the Biden/Harris ticket. 

Gothreau: Women's perceptions of and engagement in politics can vary by many factors, including age, race and ethnicity, class, education, and ideology. What - if anything - has your research revealed about these layers of difference in women's psychological engagement and/or actual participation in politics? How might these findings help us to evaluate and understand what's happening in 2020?

Deckman: My research finds that among Generation Z, women are significantly more active in politics than men, which defies historical trends. Of course, not all women are as active as others; my survey of Gen Z Americans conducted last year found being liberal and leaning Democratic is positively linked to higher rates of political engagement among Gen Z women, as does holding negative emotions about the state of the country. Gen Z women who identify as feminist and pro-choice are also significantly more likely to be engaged in politics. My interviews with Gen Z women activists make clear that their activism is rooted in reaction to Trump's presidency, the #MeToo Movement, and the fight for gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality, as well as concerns about climate change and gun violence prevention. They also are clear-eyed about how such issues are clearly inter-related from an intersectional perspective. I suspect that we will see record turnout among young women this fall, particularly among those in college, as such women drove record levels of voter turnout in the 2018 midterms, and most of those women will vote for Biden/Harris. Of course, given the extraordinary level of interest in this election by all sectors of the electorate, whether Gen Z voters, including Gen Z women, make a critical difference, remains to be seen.

Wolak: Women are more likely to vote than men, but gender gaps persist in many other forms of political engagement. Women tend to be less interested in current events, less knowledgeable about partisan politics than men, and less likely to participate in a number of campaign acts beyond voting. The origins of these gender gaps are partially rooted in gendered patterns of socialization. Men and women tend to differ in their feelings of self-confidence, where confidence and assertiveness tend to be valued more as masculine traits than feminine. This is important for politics, as self-confidence is associated with higher levels of political interest and efficacy among both men and women. But because it is a psychological resource that men are more likely to possess than women, gendered differences in self-confidence can contribute to gender gaps in engagement in politics. Another example is orientations toward conflict. Women are often perceived as being less tolerant of conflict and disagreement compared to men. Yet I find that women are not any less politically engaged as a result of this aversion to conflict.  Instead, gender gaps in engagement follow from men’s comparatively higher levels of enjoyment of contentious politics. Even though presidential campaigns are defined by their candidate battles and campaign attacks, these conflicts do not deter women’s engagement in politics.

It is fascinating to think about how these kinds of patterns of gendered political socialization may be evolving over time, as demonstrated by Dr. Deckman’s research. To the degree to which younger age cohorts enter political life with different socialization and a distinctive mindset about politics, it suggests that the nature of gender gaps in political engagement may shift over coming years. Indeed, the slow gains in the magnitude of women’s turnout advantages over time may well reflect the influx of new voters into the electorate. In the 2018 midterms, we see the greatest differences between men and women’s participation among the youngest cohorts

Gothreau: Just to add in my own two cents- in my research I focus on how personally experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment impact political engagement. I find that self-reported gender discrimination and harassment can actually mobilize women to become politically engaged. More specifically, I find that as experiences with harassment and discrimination increase, so does political efficacy, interest, and propensity to participate in politics. However, this was only the case for women who were “gender conscious.” Gender consciousness is the sense of belonging to “women” as a social group or social identity, as well as having a psychological connection to one’s gender identity. So similarly, to Dr. Deckman, I’m finding that these women, who tend to be younger, more liberal, and higher in gender consciousness, are mobilized by the #MeToo movement and their own experiences with gender discrimination. Of course, a lot of these women are ideologically predisposed to support the Biden ticket over the Trump ticket, but I’m still looking to see increases in turnout. 

Gothreau: You both mentioned that we’ve seen women, particularly young liberal women, participating in protest activity and other political acts beyond voting at higher rates than men in recent years. In political psychology, we often talk about the emotions that motivate political participation and the emotions that tend to decrease participation. What emotions do you think are driving some of the activism from women on the left? We’ve also seen increased numbers of conservative women running for office in 2020. Are a similar set of emotions driving these women?

Deckman: Among Gen Z, negative emotions are clearly driving higher levels of engagement among women versus men. In my current work, which relies in part on a national survey of 2,200 Gen Z Americans taken last summer (2019), I find that Gen Z women are more likely to say that the negative emotions listed in the survey battery (anger, nervousness, fear and disgust) describe their current emotional state about the way things are going in the country compared to Gen Z men. While relatively few Gen Z Americans overall say that the more positive emotions (enthusiasm, hopefulness, pride, and happiness) accurately portrays their current orientation toward the state of the country, Gen Z men are significantly more likely to do so than Gen Z women. More importantly, with respect to political engagement, is that holding such negative emotions is positively and significantly related to political engagement levels for Gen Z women even while controlling for a variety factors linked to political participation. The same cannot be said for Gen Z men. My research comports with newer research on the role of emotions in politics, which generally finds that negative emotions far outweigh positive emotions with respect to political behavior. My findings also shore up more recent work on political participation among Gen Z: for instance, political scientists David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht find that disillusionment with the American political system is linked to more interest in political engagement, particularly protesting, among Democratic girls. 

Wolak: Anger seems an increasingly common emotion in politics. In one 2019 survey, 60% of Americans said that they encounter something in the news that makes them feel angry at least once a day. These feelings of anger have been proposed as important to understanding women’s engagement in politics, potentially driving women’s protest participation after the election of Donald Trump as well as the rise in women candidates in the 2018 midterms. In surveys conducted between 2016 and 2018, I confirm that women are more likely to say that they are feeling angry about politics compared to men. This may help us understand gendered patterns of political engagement, as anger is thought to be an emotion that mobilizes political action

Gothreau: To build on what Dr. Wolak and Dr. Deckman have already said about the role of emotions in political engagement and activism, I agree that anger has been a big driver for women on the left to become more politically active. I think there is more research that needs to be done for us to fully understand the emotions that may be driving conservative women to participate more. The extant research on emotions would suggest that emotions like anger, feelings of threat, and perhaps anxiety, could be contributing to the increase in Republican women running for office.


Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College. She also chairs the board and is an Affiliated Scholar of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Dr. Deckman’s areas of specialty include gender, religion and political behavior. She is the author of Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right (NYU Press, 2016). Her best-selling textbook, Women and Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), written with Julie Dolan and Michele Swers, is now in its 4th edition. Her most recent work focuses on how gender impacts the political engagement of Generation Z and Americans’ views about civility in politics. Dr. Deckman received her Ph. Political Science from American University.


Jennifer Wolak is a professor of political science at the University of Colorado.  She studies public opinion, political psychology, and gender in politics. She is the author of Compromise in an Age of Party Polarization (Oxford University Press).


Claire Gothreau

Claire Gothreau is a Research Associate at the Center for American Women and Politics. She works on data collection, management, and analysis at CAWP. She received her Ph.D. from Temple University in 2019. At Temple, she was the Assistant Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab where she specialized in the collection of physiological data. Dr. Gothreau’s research interests are in American politics with a focus on gender, political psychology, and experimental methodology. She is also interested in the intersection of politics, psychophysiology, and human behavior. Her most recent work explores how objectification impacts women’s political engagement and perceptions of women political candidates.