Young people are very wrong about how many women are in Congress

May 1, 2021
News about "the squad" notwithstanding, women are still drastically underrepresented in congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

News about "the squad" notwithstanding, women are still drastically underrepresented in congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

People think there are way more women in politics than there actually are — and a study has uncovered that young people have the most vivid imaginations of all.

The paper, published April 10 in Public Opinion Quarterly, asked a nationally representative sample of 3,000 people between 18 and 89 years old about the proportion of women they thought held office in both Congress and in their state legislatures. In February 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives was 23.4% female, while the U.S. Senate was 25% female and Congress overall was 23.7%. On average, people thought Congress was 38% female — over 14 percentage points higher than reality. 

Younger people were the most off: Compared to older people, younger people believed there were 8.5 percentage points more women in Congress. Young men and young women were operating under about the same level of misapprehension. 

Barry C. Burden said the research question emerged from prior studies with his co-author Yoshikuni Ono that found a slight bias against female politicians. 

"What was surprising is that the effect seemed to be bigger among younger respondents," said Burden, a University of Wisconsin–Madison political science professor. "That seemed to fly in the face of what we know about young versus old voters." 

Because younger people were more likely to say they wanted more women in office, but then apparently less likely to support female candidates, Burden and Ono wondered whether their bias could be rooted in mistaken beliefs.

The current study does not look into bias, but it does reveal that young people are way off the mark about the state of gender equality in Congress. "People are just wrong," he said. "They have incorrect information. So that's a bad thing, and that might not motivate young people to seek out female politicians as much as they would if they knew the truth."

More than 80% of respondents thought there were more women in Congress than there really were; around half of respondents had estimates that were at least 10 percentage points too high. One in five people said that women held the majority of seats.

People who identified as strongly partisan — either liberal or conservative — had higher estimates of women in office: A pure independent's estimates tended to be about 3 percentage points lower than a partisan's. 

Women and men started off on equally wrong footing, but women got 4 percentage points more accurate as they aged, while men got 12 points more accurate. Burden noted that this finding was in line with previous studies: People "get closer and closer to the truth as they age." But even when Burden and Ono controlled for interest in politics, older people still had the edge over young people. A college education, moreover, had very little effect: College education and a high level of interest in politics made people only 1 to 4 percentage points more accurate.

Notably, people who identified as conservative or who said that religion was an important part of their lives also had a greater bias — perhaps the result of being less inclined to think gender inequality exists, or because of conservative media's emphasis on female Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Standout female politicians did appear to influence people's perceptions: Across the spectrum, people who had a memory of being represented by a woman tended to have higher estimates of the number of women in office.

The inaccurate beliefs of young people in particular probably have mixed results, the researchers said. 

"This is a typical social science conclusion that I really like: It's a double-edged sword," Burden said. Wrongheaded constituents could hurt female politicians by making these potential supporters less supportive. But, he said, more diversity in office has been shown to increase trust in government, and more women in government inspires women to participate in government and run for office more. These positive outcomes, he said, could happen even if the women in office are imaginary. 

"Those are good things driven by incorrect information, hence the title of the article, 'Ignorance Is Bliss?'" he said. "Maybe it's, in some ways, better not to know the truth."

The study, "Ignorance is bliss? Age, misinformation, and support for women's representation," published April 10 in Public Opinion Quarterly, was authored by Barry C. Burden, University of Wisconsin–Madison; and Yoshikuni Ono, Waseda University,

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