What makes some men conservative? If researchers at Loyola Marymount University and Stanford Graduate School of Business are correct, part of the answer is: sisters. Men who grew up with female siblings tend to be conservative in their views of gender throughout their lives, and more likely to vote Republican when they’re young than their male peers.
One reason may be that they’re much less likely to share household chores with their sisters, an avoidance of housework that continues into adulthood, according to new research by LMU’s Andrew Healy and Stanford’s Neil Malhotra.
“Researchers have known that families have a strong influence on their children’s political ideas,” says Malhotra. “But families are complicated, and it’s been hard to pinpoint how that socialization happens. Our breakthrough is understanding that mechanism.”
That mechanism appears to be housework. Watching their sisters do the chores “teaches” boys that housework is simply women’s work, and that leads to a traditional view of gender roles – a position linked to a predilection for Republican politics, say Healy and Malhotra. Boys with only sisters were 13.5 percent more conservative in their views of women’s roles than boys with all brothers.
When the boys with female siblings were seniors in high school, they were nearly 15 percent more likely to identify as Republicans, but as they grew into middle age, that effect diminished sharply. On the other hand, having sisters instead of brothers has no significant effect on girls, Healy and Malhotra found. Other researchers have found that people with traditional views on gender roles are 25 percent more politically conservative.
Although one might think that being around sisters would tend to make boys agree with their attitudes on gender and politics, the paper suggests otherwise. “These effects were surprising to us,” Healy says. “We might expect that boys would learn to support gender equity through interactions with their sisters. However, the data suggest that other forces are more important in driving men’s political attitudes, including whether the family assigned chores, such as dishwashing, according to traditional gender roles.”
The researchers base their conclusions on an analysis of data gathered for two earlier studies: the University of Michigan Political Socialization Panel (PSP) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) young-adult sample. The PSP study followed thousands of U.S. families and individuals over an extended period, and probed for attitudes about gender and politics, as well as the inner workings of their households.
The PSP study began in 1965 as a national sample of 1,669 high school students from 97 public and private schools, and their parents. Subsequent surveys of the same individuals were conducted in 1973, 1982, and 1997; by the time of the last survey, the former students were about 50 years old.
The NLSY survey, which was conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, included interviews with children as young as 10. Over the years, questions about political views were added to the NLSY. When that data was correlated with the PSP, Healy and Malhotra concluded “the gender stereotyping of the childhood environment thus may help to explain the effects that sisters have on male political attitudes.”
Andrew Healy is an associate professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University. Neil Malhotra is an associate professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Their paper, “Childhood Socialization and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment,” will be published in the October issue of the Journal of Politics.