The cornerstone of democracy, political scientists agree, is a knowledgeable population that’s able to make informed decisions about its government.
And yet, a common trend among emerging democracies around the world is that men tend to have greater knowledge and understanding of politics than women.
Political science graduate student Yazmin Garcia-Trejo wants to know why this gender gap exists and how it can be resolved.
A native of Mexico, Garcia-Trejo’s dissertation research focuses on understanding the origins of this disparity within her home country. Garcia-Trejo received a Ross MacKinnon Fellowship, named for former CLAS dean Ross MacKinnon, which allowed her to travel to Mexico for her research. During the summer of 2011, she visited high schools in the cities of Hermosillo, Sonora and Mexico City, gathering information on political knowledge in boys and girls.
The previous research she and others had conducted suggested that students would be no different than adults, and that a gender gap would separate political knowledge in high-schoolers. But after administering surveys to determine students’ political knowledge, Garcia-Trejo was astonished by her results.
“In Mexico there are gender differences in political knowledge among the adult population, yet girls and boys in high school in Mexico City are equally knowledgeable about politics,” says Garcia-Trejo. “These contradictory findings were surprising to me.”
Garcia-Trejo’s survey determined students’ knowledge, participation and interest in politics and how that information was attained. By analyzing this data, Garcia-Trejo discovered that schools created what she calls an “incubator effect” for young women.
“[The school] insulates students from external factors that could otherwise compromise their access to information,” explains Garcia-Trejo. “In the case of adolescent girls, the six hours of school a day literally insulates girls from, for example, doing housework during that time.”
While young women and young men are equally exposed to information about politics during their schooling, once they enter the work force, young women’s access to political information general deteriorates. Garcia-Trejo credits lower wages, occupations that reinforce traditional gender roles and other general disadvantages in the labor market to a steady decline in women’s motivation to learn and maintain knowledge of politics. She also blames a simple lack of time. “Because of an unequal burden-sharing in the household, women have less free time to invest in learning about politics,” she says. “Scarce socioeconomic resources limit women’s possibilities to access information about politics after becoming adults.”
Garcia-Trejo hopes that her discovery will inspire schools to see themselves as not only educational institutions, but also take on the responsibility of being suppliers of current information.
After receiving a BA in economics at her university in Mexico, Garcia-Trejo began her doctorate in 2004. She says that UConn’s political science department allowed her to approach her dissertation from an interdisciplinary angle, combining her interests in comparative politics, American politics, and gender studies. “They really fed my exact interests,” Garcia-Trejo explains excitedly. “The professors that teach here are the authors behind the papers we read for class. They’re constantly updated on new information – it’s really exciting!”
The PhD candidate credits much of her academic success to the MacKinnon Fellowship and is also thankful for the help she has received from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, the faculty in her dissertation committee, her department and her academic hosts in Mexico.
“My fieldwork wouldn’t have been possible without their help,” she says. “I have so many people to thank for their constant guidance and support.”