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Liberal girls and conservative boys: Explaining the emerging ideological gender divide

Earlier this year, the Financial Times published an article claiming that recent years have shown a widening ideological gap between young men and women. Historic patterns suggest that because of their shared formative experiences, members of the same generation tend to share similar beliefs and move as one on the political spectrum, regardless of gender. However, recent data indicates that this assumption does not hold true for our generation, with young women becoming increasingly progressive while young men remain more conservative. Given the remarkable progress towards women’s equality of the last decades and the impact of the #MeToo campaign that started in 2017, the fact that young women tend to lean towards the left is hardly surprising. In the meantime, the fact that young men increasingly shift towards the right or even the far-right is a rather striking and concerning pattern. But what are the causes of this emerging gender divide, why is it almost exclusive to Gen-Z, and what does it have to do with Andrew Tate and the Barbie movie?


First, let’s look at the data!


Source: Financial Times, 2024


The graphs presented by John Burn-Murdoch in the Financial Times shows the political ideology of 18–29-year-olds over time in South Korea, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. While there are some discrepancies amongst the countries, we can clearly see that in all these cases there is an emerging gap between women and men based on their alignment along the liberal-conservative binary amongst 18–30-year-olds.

 

One thing I found interesting is that in all of these countries, the existence of the divide in which women tend to be more liberal than men is fairly new. Actually, for much of history, the exact opposite was the case, as traditionally, women were found to be more right-leaning. However, as the diagrams show, from around the 1990s, this ‘ideological gender gap’ has reversed, which could be attributed to structural changes that have fundamentally altered women’s role and position in society. These include variables such as increased participation of women in the labour market, greater economic independence and improved educational opportunities. As women became more integrated into the workforce and more educated, their ideological alignment also started to skew more towards the left, eventually surpassing that of men. This pattern was further accelerated by the outburst of the #MeToo campaign in 2017, which was especially impactful amongst younger women. 


Source: Ruth Dassonneville, 2021


During the same timeframe, the political leanings of young men remained relatively stable, experiencing less drastic shifts than their female counterparts. However, since 2017, there has been a notable departure from this trend, with young men actively gravitating towards more right-wing ideologies, further widening the ideological gap. This trend is the most pronounced in South Korea, where the values of young men have undergone a significant transformation, with a nearly 40 percentage point difference observed in just the past six years. Although less drastic, similar trends are present in Europe and the United States as well. This is evident in the increasing support among young men for far-right political parties such as Germany's AFD, Poland's Confederation party, Hungary's Mi Hazánk, and even the political camp of Donald Trump in the US


So then, the data reveals an emerging trend since the 2010s which is characterised by dual shifts. On the one hand, the #MeToo movement catalysed a growing liberal stance among young women, which is not entirely surprising. More intriguing, it also triggered a substantial number of young men to be more right-leaning, marking an unexpected counterbalance. Furthermore, as data by Change Research shows, it seems that the emerging polarisation of women and men is either exclusive to or far more pronounced in younger generations than older ones.



So then why is it that young people are more divided than ever? What really drives this gendered polarisation of our generation, and why are other age groups less affected by it? I believe that the ‘Great Gender Divide’ boils down to two important factors: economics and technology. Let’s break it down!


The Economic Factor


To put it lightly, Gen-Z has a rather pessimistic economic outlook compared to other generations. In light of the 2008 economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, this is hardly surprising as both of these events resulted in economic stagnation. Combine that with inflation, soaring living costs, unaffordable housing, political turmoil, and the looming threat of climate change, and the dream of a secure future feels like wishful thinking. Many young people worry that they’ll never be able to own a home, retire comfortably, or break free from the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck.



But why is Gen-Z more negative about the future than other age groups? Research shows that those who experienced economic growth in their youth are more likely to believe in the possibility of shared prosperity. So, while the effects of economic stagnation are felt across all age groups, people who have lived in the ‘good times’ are less anxious about economics and tend to be more hopeful about the future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that other generations had it any easier in their youth than us; growing up wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for them either. In fact, many of the challenges that we face now are quite similar to what our parents and grandparents had to overcome. However, what is rather different is how we perceive our future. Generation X, for instance, witnessed significant transformations with the regime change, yet they held onto a sense of hopefulness amidst these shifts. Millennials, on the other hand, were sold the dream of prosperity and were only confronted with harsh realities later on. And as for Gen-Z? Well, we’ve grown up in a world where economic disillusionment is the norm rather than the exception. Our generation has no illusions about the challenges ahead, facing economic uncertainty head-on from the start. 


This sense of economic insecurity and hopelessness for the future breeds feelings of resentment and frustration amongst our generation, which provides fertile ground for radicalisation. Additionally, amid globally rising income-inequalities, economic frustrations are further amplified by zero-sum mindsets, where one’s success is inadvertently seen as another’s loss.  This perception is reinforced during periods of economic stagnation, as limited resources enhance the underlying assumption that societal output is limited,  and that efforts and exchanges  merely redistribute rather than create value. 


What’s the link between gender and this kind of all-or-nothing mentality? 


Zero-sum mentality can foster support towards both the left and the right. On the one hand, it is associated with support for social welfare policies, income redistribution and awareness of racial and gender discrimination. But this all-or-nothing mentality also fosters xenophobia and sexist resentment. The latter particularly stands true amongst men who may perceive themselves as being disadvantaged or left behind in a rapidly changing economic landscape. In a society where men's traditional role as providers is challenged more and more, some men may react by clinging to traditional gender norms and resenting women's advancements in education and the workforce. It’s a vicious cycle – when men struggle to get ahead and perceive unfair treatment, they're more likely to resent the gains made by women. This modern form of sexism is often strongest among men who perceive state institutions as unfair and live in regions with rising unemployment, because these factors hinder them from getting ahead and securing their patriarchal role. Simply put: guys who became rich and successful through their own efforts tend to perceive the system as fair and are less likely to think that they have anything to lose by women’s success. Conversely, those facing economic adversity might argue that the advancement of women’s and girls’ rights has gone too far because it threatens their opportunities. In fact, arguments like this are especially widespread in the Korean ‘manosphere’, where 80% of men in their twenties believe that they are discriminated against because of their gender. 


A pattern is evident: while women advocate for gender equality and increasingly adopt progressive stances, some men, under internal and societal pressures to succeed, find themselves at odds with these changes. Under a ‘zero-sum’ mentality, resentful hostility makes sense. Economic stagnation and intense competition foster jealousy, which drives right-wing support, especially among young men.


Source: Financial Times, 2020


The Role of Social Media


So then, economic frustrations have clearly fuelled status insecurity and resentment, but it can only explain so much. The other big cultural shift that coincides with the growing gender divide is technology and the rise of social media, which offers further insights into why the trend is most prominent in younger generations. This correlation comes as no surprise. I think it’s fair to say that by now most people have heard of the myriad of research on the effects of social media on self-esteem and mental health. The algorithms powering social media platforms are meticulously crafted to engage users, creating echo chambers known as filter bubbles. These bubbles reinforce righteous resistance and groupthink, as individuals are exposed to content that aligns with their existing beliefs. This contributes to polarised media consumption and fuels distorted misperceptions. 


Essentially, what it all boils down to is this: people who are only exposed to stories that appeal to their own frustrations and reinforce their beliefs fuel resentment towards those who think differently, creating a distorted view of what the other side really stands for. Young women who only see content about tearing down the patriarchy might themselves start to believe that all men are inherently toxic. In the meantime, men who are exposed to sites preaching the ‘alpha-male’ mindset and patriarchal values will themselves start to resent progressive women. Thus, by creating these filter bubbles, algorithms invertedly exacerbate polarisation amongst users, promoting a self-sustaining cycle and thus widening the ideological gender gap of young people by the minute. 


These examples show that filter bubbles themselves don’t adhere to a pre-ordained ideology. They can be both left- or right-leaning. Rather, they serve as fertile ground for various cultural entrepreneurs and content creators who utilise social media to capitalise on the existing economic frustrations and hopelessness of Gen-Z. Even though none of us are exempt from falling into the biased traps that algorithms create, young people are especially impressionable to them. While posts and stories targeted to girls and young women – at least in my experience – are often about empowerment and self-acceptance, a lot of the ‘alpha-male’ content tailored for guys tends to emphasise the significance of patriarchal expectations of success and status. Sure, through unrealistic beauty standards, social media puts a lot of pressure on girls as well, but even the Kardashians brand themselves as successful businesswomen who fight against the patriarchy, thus embodying the epitome of strong independent women. On the other hand, influencers like Andrew Tate preach misogyny and the superiority of men, putting immense pressure on their followers. As a millionaire, Tate, the ‘king of toxic-masculinity’, embodies many men’s idea of success of endless private-jet flights and women falling to their knees. However, the standards of ‘manliness’ and ‘masculinity’ that Tate and all the other ‘alpha-bros’ embody are virtually impossible to fulfil, thus putting even more pressure on young men to achieve status that is inevitably met with disappointment. Upon failure to meet the external and internalised pressures of the ‘manosphere,’  young men then become even more frustrated with their own situation, thus falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole and further widening the gender divide.



Looking into the future: Is there a way to reverse the polarisation?


To briefly conclude, I argue that the political gender gap among Gen-Z stems primarily from economic uncertainty and technological factors. Economic stagnation breeds resentment and a zero-sum mentality, while social media algorithms exacerbate polarisation, which widens the ideological divergence of young men and women. The consequences of this divide are multifaceted and warrant careful consideration, especially in light of the upcoming elections in the US and in the EU, as polarisation between genders presents significant implications for Western democracies. 


So, what steps can we take to address this issue? While there is no easy answer, I believe that it is important that we try to foster mixed-gendered socialisation and friendships as they can help break down barriers and promote understanding. This is especially the case when such interactions occur offline, as they tend to be more balanced since the veil of anonymity provided by online platforms is no longer present. 


While I don’t have all the solutions to the issue,  I would argue that perhaps even watching the Barbie movie could prove to be a great start to bridging the gender divide. Sure, as entertaining as it is, it might not be the most profound cinematic experience and its portrayal of feminism could certainly be more nuanced. Still, quite paradoxically, I think that the movie offers a lot to learn especially to those men who are the most vocal of their dislike towards the film. I think that this is because of the way Ken is portrayed in the movie, who goes through similar challenges and frustrations as many young men face nowadays. While for a swift moment, the doll also embraces sexism and the patriarchy, he realises that by doing so, he just puts extra expectations on himself that fuel his resentment and dissatisfaction.


Ultimately, I think that the answer to reversing the gender divide boils down to the message of the song “I’m Just Ken”. Rather than clinging on to outdated ideas of masculinity and status, it would be so much easier for everyone to just let go of these internalised expectations and embrace the idea that perhaps life is not a zero-sum game and we could all thrive together by embracing our differences.








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