Gen Z's gender divide is huge — and unexpected

Something strange is happening between Gen Z men and women. Over the past decade, poll after poll has found that young people are growing more and more divided by gender on a host of political issues. Since 2014, women between the ages of 18 and 29 have steadily become more liberal each year, while young men have not. Today, female Gen Zers are more likely than their male counterparts to vote, care more about political issues, and participate in social movements and protests.

While the gender gap is an enduring feature of American politics, at no time in the past quarter century has there been such a rapid divergence between the views of young men and women. The startling speed of the change suggests something more significant is going on than just new demographic patterns, such as rising rates of education or declining adherence to a religion — the change points to some kind of cataclysmal event. After speaking with more than 20 Gen Zers, my colleagues at the Survey Center on American Life and I found that among women, no event was more influential to their political development than the #MeToo movement.

In 2017, women around the world began speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Gen Zers were then in high school and college, and for them, the movement came at a formative moment. "Luckily I had that all over social media to shape the way I look at dating and men," a 21-year-old woman told us about #MeToo. She said it allowed her "to use other people's experiences to form a sense of putting a guard up." A 20-year-old woman offered a similar take — that #MeToo empowered her to stand up for herself: "I think it makes me less of a doormat."

As I've written previously, the #MeToo movement united women politically. Although the challenges women face vary dramatically in the US, sexual harassment is a ubiquitous experience impacting women across lines of social class, politics, age, and race. Eight in 10 women say they have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives — and addressing that reality quickly became central for women. After the inauguration of Donald Trump, hundreds of thousands of women marched on Washington in the largest single-day protest in American history.

But while women were rallying together, many Gen Z men began to feel like society was turning against them. As recently as 2019, less than one-third of young men said that they faced discrimination, according to Pew, but today, close to half of young men believe they face at least some discrimination. In a 2020 survey by the research organization PRRI, half of men agreed with the statement: "These days society seems to punish men just for acting like men."

It increasingly feels like Gen Z men and women are living on different planets, each guided by the belief that they are navigating uniquely hostile terrain — and understanding why is crucial to bridging the gap.

#MeToo feminism

The #MeToo movement established a sense of solidarity among young women. A survey conducted in 2022 found that two-thirds of young women believe that in most or in every way, what happens to women in the US will have a bearing on their own lives — an idea known as "linked fate" in sociology. But this sentiment was not shared by older women: Only 36% of women older than 65 said the same. This bond has bled into Gen Z women's politics, especially around issues like abortion. A survey we conducted after Roe v. Wade was overturned and just before the 2022 midterms found that no issue mattered more for young women than abortion: 61% said it was a critical concern, while only 32% of young men said the same. In the 2022 midterm elections, all young voters strongly supported Democratic candidates, but young women demonstrated much greater support than men.

Gen Z women have also united around the importance of female leadership and representation. A recent Pew poll found that 72% of women aged 18 to 29 believe there are too few women serving in "high political offices," a steep jump from the roughly half of women over 50 and less than half of young men who said the same. More than seven in 10 young women said that the lack of female representation in political office is because women are held to higher standards than men.

This newfound solidarity among women is also showing up in the workplace. For decades a strong majority of men and women alike had reported a clear preference for a male boss. But the percentage of women who said they preferred a male boss plummeted 12 points between 2014 and 2017. By that year, the year of the most recent polling, a majority of women reported preferring a female boss for the first time.

At the same time, women's dissatisfaction with the status quo has only intensified. In 2016, 61% of women said they were satisfied with the way women are treated in American society, according to a Gallup survey. Today, that has dropped to 44%.

Men shift to the right

As women's political priorities have solidified, young men's priorities have melted into mush. Surveys consistently show that young men are far less likely than women to say any particular issue is personally important to them. A survey we conducted last year found that young women expressed statistically significant greater concern for 11 out of 15 different issues, including drug addiction, crime, climate change, and gun violence. There was not a single issue that young men cared about significantly more than young women.

Young men are also unhappy. For a growing number, feminism has less to do with promoting gender equality and more to do with simply attacking men. A 2022 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 46% of Democratic men under 50 agreed that feminism has done more harm than good — even more Republican men agreed. In our recent poll, roughly one in four male Gen Zers said they have experienced more gender discrimination than older men. And less than half of Gen Z men identified as feminists, with only half saying they support the #MeToo movement, compared to 72% of women.

One young man we interviewed said he didn't pay much attention to #MeToo: "It just seemed like a bit of buzz going on around celebrities, and awful things are happening in the world all the time. If I did ponder, it would bring me down and so I just choose to not even pay attention." Another said #MeToo was just something he picked up from "a woman's study class" in college but not anything that he thinks much about.

The lack of interest could be because Gen Z men have their own issues. Richard Reeves, the founder of the American Institute for Boys and Men, has meticulously documented the challenges facing young men in America: They are struggling more in school, are less likely than women to go to and graduate from college, have fewer close friends than previous generations, and are four times as likely to commit suicide than women. Reeves argues that this state of affairs requires that we hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at once: Men at the highest rungs of the economic ladder are still advantaged by a system that perpetuates gender inequality, while men on the lower rungs of society face unique challenges because they are men.

While women have turned to the left for answers to their problems, men are finding support on the right. Trump helped redefine conservatism as a distinctly masculine ideology, stoking grievances and directing young men's frustration toward liberals and feminists. There are signs the message is resonating: Republican affiliation among white men aged 18 to 24 jumped from 28% in 2019 to 41% in 2023, according to a Harvard Youth Poll. Outside politics, right-leaning figures such as Andrew Tate, Elon Musk, and Jordan Peterson are attracting young men looking for an ideological home.

Most young men are probably not interested in making America great again, but they do feel acutely the need to secure a place for themselves in a culture that readily identifies male advantage but ignores the challenges young men face. Out of a sense of increased insecurity, more young men are adopting a zero-sum view of gender equality — if women gain, men will inevitably lose. It's an outlook that makes them defensive, encourages them to ignore or overlook enduring challenges women face in society, and can even spur misogyny. As one 35-year-old man told Pew in 2022 about #MeToo: "Too many people are taking advantage of a serious situation because it's trendy or they are greedy or just want attention." And this attitude has real-world consequences: In the online gaming world, 75% of Gen Z women have reported experiencing harassment.

No Winners

An oft-cited statistic that conveys the enduring absurdity of the gender gap is that until very recently, there were more CEOs named John than CEOs who are women. Across most industries, from politics to academia, men in American society still control more resources, earn higher wages, and enjoy more prestige. But few young men have any experience in the boardroom, and in the classroom, it's their female peers who are crushing it.

But both genders are feeling increasingly precarious — and it's causing them to drift further apart. A recent Washington Post editorial lamented what this growing political divide means for dating and marriage: If Gen Z men and women can't agree on politics, it's going to get harder for them to find a partner. But if anything, that understates the problem. Based on our interviews, there appears to be a growing eagerness among both young men and women to blame their problems on each other. And a society in which men and women see their interests as irrevocably opposed is not one that can last.

Daniel Cox is director of the Survey Center on American Life and research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.

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