Dudes Who Grow Up With Sisters Are More Likely to Be Conservative

It seems ludicrous to talk about running a household like a Fortune 500 company, but there it is: what happens in a childhood home has a profound lifetime impact on a kid.

Aug 20, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

You know how I'm always maundering on about how our society is gendered and ideas about gender roles are created very, very early in life thanks to socialization? And how every other week, it seems like there's a study backing me up?

The “Journal of Politics” just released a fascinating large-scale study that adds another piece to the puzzle, looking at the childhood gender gap. Yes, you read that right: the gender gap starts in childhood, homechickens, and the data from the study are really chilling for those of us who care about gender equality and fighting gendered attitudes about society.

This long-term study has followed people since 1987, and surveyed almost 3,000 individuals for the latest iteration. Long-term studies with a big sample size are great because they can provide a lot of solid data with real-world applications, and thanks to the length of the study, researchers can revisit and reanalyze information to correct for a lot of influencing factors. The lookback ability with the same subjects also allows researchers to track trends over time using realtime data, instead of self-reported data from people trying to remember how they felt politically and socially ten or more years in the past.

Ostensibly, the study was looking at what's known as “the sibling effect,” examining whether and how the gender of someone's siblings influence political party affiliations. The researchers found that men who grew up with female siblings were more likely to identify with the Republican party; 8.3 percentage points more likely, actually, when compared to men who grew up with brothers. This effect was even stronger for people close in age to their siblings and firstborns.

Researchers naturally became interested in why this was, and they discovered that very stereotyped gender roles are reinforced at an early age in the household. Check this out: even in childhood, girls do more work for less pay. While they complete more chores, they make the same or even less allowance, and older girls tend to be charged with the care of younger siblings more than younger boys. The ladies just can't win. Even in childhood, they're expected to take on more of the work, and their work is devalued.

We wonder why many women are performing what's known as “second shift” work where they're out in the workplace and then coming home to manage their households? This is clearly an important factor in how that happens; because men growing up with sisters aren't necessarily learning about the value of work around the house. And they're learning that this work is the responsibility of women, not men, and thus not their problem, even in adulthood when they should theoretically be sharing labor evenly.

...about 60% of boys but 82% of girls 10 and older with younger siblings told interviewers they were expected to help with the dishes. (source)

Men with sisters are apparently more likely to believe that a woman's place is in the home, perhaps in part because they're growing up in houses where girls are being tasked with traditionally “domestic” tasks like washing dishes and cleaning while boys are out mowing the lawn and raking leaves. And this effect endures over the years. Men in their 40s who grew up with sisters still believe that women should stay home and raise children rather than being out in the workforce or engaging in other activities.

Since the study covers a long period, the researchers note that over time, the percentage of conservative respondents seems to shrink, suggesting that the strength of the sibling effect might dwindle as people age. However, they point out that this may be because respondents are looking for the socially acceptable answer to a question, rather than the one that reflects their genuine views. Social attitudes in, say, 1973 were very different than they are today in 2013. Consequently, it's a little bit difficult to come up with a totally accurate projection of how political views change over a lifetime.

How much of men saying they aren't as conservative is about genuine political shifts, and how much is about a desire to not appear to have outdated political beliefs? Even as hardline conservatives continue to espouse very rigid gender roles in society, there's a growing social push for equality, and in environments that aren't necessarily politically “safe,” people may give the answer they think researchers want, rather than the honest one.

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Photo: Mike Baird.

Intriguingly, while men with sisters tend to be more conservative, the study didn't note a strong leaning toward conservative values for girls growing up in mixed gender households. While both girls and boys learn to perform gender through a series of external social pressures in childhood, boys are the ones taking away the idea that girls belong in the home -- something traditionally linked with conservative political values.

It's kind of dismaying to think that the wage gap starts so early in life, and even more dismaying to think about how much impact simple chore assignments can have on people growing up. The study highlights the fact that parents have a tremendous responsibility when it comes to the environment their children are raised in, and no matter what a parent's political affiliations or beliefs are, it's possible for children to end up in highly gendered roles.

Those roles can have serious real-world implications not just when it comes to how children think about gender, but how children think about society in general. Every decision parents make is socially loaded, from which colors they dress their toddlers in to how they divide the weekly chore wheel. With that kind of minefield to navigate when raising children, I don't envy parents in the slightest.

Evidently, parents need to think really carefully about which chores they assign to whom and when. It's also critically important to make sure kids are compensated fairly for their work, to avoid situations where boys are making more than girls and learning that their work has more value than that of girls. It seems ludicrous to talk about running a household like a Fortune 500 company, but there it is: what happens in a childhood home has a profound lifetime impact on a kid.

This study also illustrates why a true egalitarian society involves many pieces of a complex puzzle that have to come together in the right way. It's not as simple as legislating equality, because we need to evaluate society at every level to find out where social attitudes originate and attempt to organically level the playing field. What we see in pop culture, whether Bart or Lisa does the dishes, how we read the gender of young children, how we treat female politicians in the media...all of these things matter.