Presidential Election Shows Gender, Optimism Gaps

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Commentator Caryl Rivers

The different voting patterns between men and women in the presidential election demonstrate an “optimism gap” between the sexes. Women are less sure about the booming economy than men, more apt to be looking over their shoulders and seeing the shadow of hard times.

The gender gap broke evenly: 11 percent for Gore among women, 11 percent among men for Bush.

And if women are queasy, they have reasons to be, and those reasons are rooted both in demographics and economics. Women are living much longer than ever before, but their economic gains are not matching their longevity gains. An AFL-CIO study released in l999 showed that women still tend to be clustered in lower-paying, female-dominated occupations and, on average, still earn about 74 percent of men’s wages (minority women earn 64 percent.)

Women, more than men, appear to see life as a treadmill on which they are running fast but not making much headway. And they’ll be running a long time. Some demographers have estimated that one in three white baby girls born today will live to be a hundred. A 65-year-old woman today can expect to live, on average, 19 more years. An 85-year-old-womanÝcan, on average, expect to live six-and-a-half more years.

They are not only outliving their husbands, but also their husbands’ pensions, in addition to their own. The Heinz Foundation notes that women retirees receive only half the average pension benefits that men receive and that women’s lifetime earnings are some $250,000 less than men’s.

More Women Seek Education Credentials As Security

The optimism gap also shows up in the fact that women are jamming college classrooms, while those very same classrooms are becoming places where the boys aren’t. Today, less than 45 percent of U.S. undergraduates are men, compared to 55 percent in 1970, according to survey data. Utah is now the only state with more men than women in college.

Many young men, it seems, are opting out of college to leap into jobs in the roaring economy, especially in the computer and technology sectors. Young women appear to believe that they need the credential that the degree provides. This is probably not because they are inherently risk-averse, but because they know that such things as glass ceilings and sex discrimination exist. Not only that: They may feel less optimistic than men about a world in which technology plays an increasingly large role.

Research shows that early on, even girls who are gifted in math and science are given much less encouragement than boys by parents and schools. The Talking Barbie that said, “I don’t like math,” was no help on that score. Even though girls and boys start out in school liking math equally, by the seventh grade, girls’ enthusiasm for math declines significantly.

It’s not surprising that the Commerce Department finds that only 9 percent of U.S. engineers and 27 percent of computer scientists are women. According to a recent report by the American Association of University Women, those numbers represent a decline over the past 15 years. In 1998 only 16 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women, down from nearly 40 percent in 1984.

Fewer women are preparing for careers in information technology, on which the economy of the United States is becoming increasingly dependent

Female Pessimism May Be More Realistic Than Male Optimism

Optimism may be one reason why men were more comfortable with the comfy charm of “George W.” while women saw Al Gore as the helper: the one who gives out family and medical leave, protection against sexual harassment and support for day care and education.

Female pessimism may, in fact, be more realistic than male optimism. Men’s wages have been declining or stagnant for years, and despite the good economy, the American Management Association reports that American corporations continue to downsize at a record rate.

Men’s optimism may be based not on actual fact, but on the American myth that success is due to individual drive and grit, not to huge economic forces. That attitude can make a 22-year-old Internet millionaire feel wonderful, but a 45-year-old middle manager who gets a pink slip has a different view.

Historians note that one reason American men were so devastated by the Great Depression was that they blamed themselves for their failures, not the worldwide economic plunge. Less optimism means that women see safety in numbers more often than men, so Al Gore’s support for unions was a big plus. Wages are higher for union workers, and the gender wage gap is smaller.

Wage Equity Ends When Women Have Children

Men, too, benefit from unions in at least eight states, and union men have a 35-percent wage advantage over non-union members. But it was white, middle-class men who most favored Bush. This is a group that has been on top of the economic heap for a long time, and many expect to remain so.

Women are not as confident as men that they will prosper. Women’s Enews reported recently that in a nationwide, bi-partisan poll, 58 percent of women said they were worried about making ends meet, compared with 46 percent of men. And they are right to worry. (See: http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=288&context=archive.)

Some conservatives trumpeted loudly that a study from the American Enterprise Institute showed that men and women doing the same jobs earn roughly the same pay. The problem is, this only holds true for younger workers. When women have kids, that’s when the picture changes and the wage gap kicks in. The average American family loses $4,000 per year thanks to this gender gap.

On election night, CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, reporting the gender gap in voting, joked that perhaps we ought to have a president for the men and a president for the women. If the optimism gap remains strong, the sexes may keep on voting as if Woodruff’s observation were a possibility.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.


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