More stress, less voice? The gender gap in political participation during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Roxana BurciuUniversità Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, Italy

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Swen HutterFreie Universität Berlin and WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany

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Initial fears of a standstill in political participation during the COVID-19 pandemic have not come true. Nevertheless, the voices heard in politics may have changed in such a radically altered social and political context. Specifically, the current article examines whether the gender gap in political participation has widened during the pandemic, reinforcing the gendered impact of the pandemic and state measures to cope with it. To empirically assess the development and drivers of the gender gap in political participation, we rely on original survey data for Germany collected in autumn 2020 and spring 2021. Based on retrospective questions about pre-pandemic behaviour and a within-pandemic panel, our results indicate three points: (1) the COVID-19 crisis has slightly increased the gender gap in participation; (2) COVID-19-related burdens (such as increasing care obligations) have not restrained, but fostered, participation; and (3) this mobilising effect is, however, stronger among men than women.

Abstract

Initial fears of a standstill in political participation during the COVID-19 pandemic have not come true. Nevertheless, the voices heard in politics may have changed in such a radically altered social and political context. Specifically, the current article examines whether the gender gap in political participation has widened during the pandemic, reinforcing the gendered impact of the pandemic and state measures to cope with it. To empirically assess the development and drivers of the gender gap in political participation, we rely on original survey data for Germany collected in autumn 2020 and spring 2021. Based on retrospective questions about pre-pandemic behaviour and a within-pandemic panel, our results indicate three points: (1) the COVID-19 crisis has slightly increased the gender gap in participation; (2) COVID-19-related burdens (such as increasing care obligations) have not restrained, but fostered, participation; and (3) this mobilising effect is, however, stronger among men than women.

Key messages

  • Based on retrospective questions and a within-pandemic panel, the gender gap in political participation increased slightly in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The unequal impact of the pandemic on women’s economic and social status tends to translate into unequal participation in politics.

  • What we call ‘COVID-19-related’ burdens had a more substantial mobilising effect among men than women.

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a dilemma for civil society. The need for citizens’ involvement has increased to cope with this multifaceted crisis in everyday life, voice criticism and draw attention to unheard grievances. Simultaneously, restrictions on contact and assembly have rendered many forms of participation more difficult, at times, impossible. However, the developments since its onset have shown that fears of a standstill have not come true in European societies (Borbáth et al, 2021). On the contrary, like earlier crises, the pandemic has triggered two dynamics. First, we have seen solidarity-based behaviour and spontaneous readiness to help, especially in close social networks (see, for example, Carlsen et al, 2021; Bertogg and Koos, 2021; Waeterloos et al, 2021). Second, we have seen a surge in petition drives and protest actions. Protesting groups have ranged from highly affected economic sectors via pre-existing social movements (such as the climate justice movement) to emerging anti-containment alliances (see, for example, Gerbaudo, 2020; Zajak et al, 2021; della Porta, 2022).

Activation and participation sound like good news for the state of civil society and democracy. However, we should not draw hasty conclusions. Levels of engagement do not tell us much about the social composition of participants. This observation is critical in a crisis that has reinforced inequalities in contemporary societies (see, for example, Grasso et al, 2021). It relates to ongoing scholarly debates over ‘political inequalities’, that is, how social inequalities translate into unequal participation rates (Dalton, 2017). Some people are more likely to participate based on resources, skills and motivations, ultimately distorting policy outcomes (Bartels, 2016).

In this study, we focus on the gender gap in political participation. Our questions are as follows: has the COVID-19 crisis led to changes in the gender gap in political participation? If yes, have we seen a further widening or narrowing, and what might explain these trends? An analysis of gendered participation rates during the pandemic seems particularly important. Studies have shown that women have been more negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis than men (see, for example, Alon et al, 2020; Power, 2020; King et al, 2020; Czymara et al, 2021). There are two main ways in which COVID-19 interacts with gender. First, extended lockdowns, the closure of schools and childcare facilities, and the expansion of remote working have increased the burden on women, taking up most of the additional unpaid work (see, for example, Chung et al, 2021; Hipp and Bünning, 2021). Second, the pandemic resulted in record numbers of people losing their jobs, reduced work hours and additional financial strains on economically vulnerable people. Women are over-represented in highly affected economic sectors across the European Union (EU), and the intersectionality of gender with other structural inequalities puts less-educated women, single mothers and women with a migrant background at even greater risk (see, for example, Cook and Grimshaw, 2021; Dunatchik et al, 2021).

From a participation perspective, the pandemic made female voices in politics more needed but not necessarily more likely. Unequal losses in resources, coupled with social-contact restrictions and a concentration of governmental action on virus containment (Engler et al, 2021), may have limited women’s ability to be politically active at a time when there were more reasons for women’s participation, not fewer. These observations should be considered in the light of studies pointing to a persistent gender gap in political participation in pre-pandemic Europe (see, for example, Gallego, 2007; Peter and Drobnic, 2013; Durovic, 2017; Brandtzaeg, 2017), though the gap has been closing or reversing for some forms, such as voting or signing petitions (see, for example, Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010; Stolle and Hooghe, 2011).

Empirically, we examine the development and drivers of the gender gap in political participation based on an original two-wave survey collected in Germany in autumn 2020 and spring 2021. We collected data on (non-)involvement in various participation forms during the COVID-19 crisis and asked retrospective questions about pre-pandemic behaviour. While the survey design does not allow definitive and causal claims, the empirical results suggest the persistence of pre-pandemic differences: women have not gained a stronger ‘voice’ in politics during the pandemic. In contrast, the results based on retrospective data point out that the crisis has somewhat increased the gender gap in participation. Moreover, COVID-19-related burdens – such as increasing care-work responsibilities or the need to provide help outside one’s household – are not associated with reduced participation. Instead, they are linked to increased participation, acting as suddenly imposed grievances. However, this mobilising effect holds mainly among male respondents, pointing to a potential lack of an appropriate supply of opportunities for women’s participation in the pandemic.

The article is structured in five parts. First, we discuss scholarly work on the gender gap in participation before the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, we emphasise how the pandemic might have affected participation rates across and within genders. Third, we introduce the design and data. Fourth, we present the results, combining descriptive and regression analyses. The article concludes with a summary and avenues for further research.

The gender gap in political participation and its causes

We adopt a broad understanding of political participation. Specifically, we cover what van Deth (2014) labelled as Participation-I (that is, institutional forms, such as contacting politicians or attending party activities), Participation-II (that is, non-institutional forms, such as protesting offline or online) and Participation-III (that is, civic engagement, such as volunteering).

The scholarly literature offers at least three main insights on the level and trends of the gender gap in participation: first, studies emphasise that the gender gap relates to varying preferences towards specific forms of participation, rather than differences in overall levels of participation (Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010; Pfanzelt and Spies, 2019). Women tend to prefer forms that are less institutionalised and hierarchical, and more spontaneous and lifestyle-related, such as signing petitions or political consumerism (see, for example, Stolle and Micheletti, 2003; Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010; 2021; Pfanzelt and Spies, 2019). By contrast, women are still less likely to become party members (Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2021), contact representatives (Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010; Stolle and Hooghe, 2011), join formal associations (Peter and Drobnic, 2013) or take part in demonstrations (Gallego, 2007). Second, research indicates that the gender gap has narrowed and even been reversed for specific modes (Stolle and Hooghe, 2011) – especially for participation in protests, signing petitions (Durovic, 2017) and boycotting (Gallego, 2007). Third, the gender gap is further accentuated by a within-gender dimension. Coffé and Bolzendahl (2010: 327), for example, show that married women, divorced women and women with children are less likely to be politically active than single and childless women. Notably, these effects do not hold for men. Similarly, higher educational levels, political interest and post-materialist values are essential mobilising factors for women but not for men (Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010; Durovic, 2017). Also, younger women are more likely to be active in non-institutional forms than older women (Desposato and Norrander, 2008; Brandtzaeg, 2017; Durovic, 2017; Gerber et al, 2019).

To explain why the gender gap in participation exists, one can draw on general theories of political participation. We rely on Teorell’s (2006) overview of the field, emphasising the interplay between resources, incentives and political action. According to Teorell (2006: 797ff), the causes of political participation can be aggregated into two sets of variables: opportunities and willingness. Opportunities are conceptualised as available participation-relevant resources and willingness as personal or contextual incentives motivating someone to engage politically. The first barrier (resources) restricts the broad set of actions available to a subset of possible actions. From this limited subset, individuals chose those forms that resonate the most with their incentives for participation (Teorell, 2006: 800). In other words, individuals can only engage in those activities they have the resources for, and they will only do so when those activities provide sufficient motivation.

The term ‘resources’ covers a variety of capital enabling participation: financial and material assets (physical capital); skills, knowledge and capacities (human capital); and social networks and other social resources (social capital) (Teorell, 2006: 798–9). Thus, unequal resource distributions between genders are considered key to the gender gap in participation (Pfanzelt and Spies, 2019). Importantly, Hooghe and Stolle (2004) show no significant differences in the intention to participate between 14-year-old boys and girls, suggesting that the gender gap is due to different resources available during adulthood. Such a resource perspective can also explain why women are more active in informal activities, suitable for a particular set of resources (Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010: 319). In short, the resource perspective argues that due to gendered patterns of stratification, differences in available time, money and skills lead to lower levels of participation among women than men. Among women, advanced age and the responsibilities of taking care of a family are additional barriers to participation, whereas such factors do not affect men’s involvement in politics.

Incentives, by contrast, refer to motivations that make a person likely to participate in politics (Teorell, 2006: 800). They include general (one can reap the benefits even without personal involvement) and selective incentives (benefits only occur from contributing to the outcome personally). In their cross-national study, Coffé and Bolzendahl (2010) show that participation is a gendered behaviour shaped by differences in socialisation and attitudes: women are less interested in politics, score lower in their perceived ability to influence political outcomes and have different political experiences in families and schools (see Pfanzelt and Spies, 2019). Related studies investigating political ambition find that the dynamic of gendered political socialisation leads children to believe that politics is for men and leads girls to believe that political roles conflict with their prescribed gender roles (Fox and Lawless, 2014; Bos et al, 2022). From a young age, one can also observe gendered preferences for participation modes: 14-year-old girls are less interested in party membership and running for office, and they indicate less intention to participate in radical actions but are more drawn towards social movement activities (Hooghe and Stolle, 2004). Further studies support the perspective: when controlling for political interest and efficacy, the gender gap shrinks for various participation modes and even reverses for voting (see, for example, Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010: 325–7; Teorell et al, 2007). Relatedly, Pfanzelt and Spies (2019) show that engaging in civic activities increases future participation, with a stronger association for men. This finding suggests that men ‘profit’ more from civic engagement, learning relevant skills that they are more likely to use in narrowly defined political activities because of stronger internal efficacy beliefs.

COVID-19 and the gender gap in participation

Against this background, we are interested in the short-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the gender gap in participation. We integrate research on the pandemic’s social and economic consequences into the resource–incentive framework of political participation.

Regarding resources for participation, there are two main dynamics affecting women more than men during the pandemic: increased unpaid work and job loss. First, despite fathers’ increase in time spent on domestic and childcare tasks during the pandemic, the gender gap for these activities is still present, in part, because men and women started from different pre-pandemic levels, with women doing most of the work (Chung et al, 2021; Fodor et al, 2021: S97); and in part, because women took on most of the additional work created by anti-containment measures (Hipp and Bünning, 2021: S660) when both partners worked from home or when neither parent worked from home (Dunatchik et al, 2021: 7). Thus, the pandemic has increased the burden placed upon women to balance intensive paid work with care and household work (Fodor et al, 2021: S96). Second, generally, women are employed part-time or on temporary contracts more often than men, thus making them more vulnerable during the pandemic (Kulic et al, 2021: S403–4). Several studies show that women have been more likely to face reduced working hours and income, as well as job losses (King et al, 2020; Kulic et al, 2021; Czymara et al, 2021: 70; Reichelt et al, 2021). Also, women are less likely to be employed in occupations ‘fit’ for remote work (Alon et al, 2020: 9; Fuller and Qian, 2021: 6). In general, employees in shutdown sectors are more likely to be female, young and low paid (Blundell et al, 2020: 298; King et al, 2020; Fuller and Qian, 2021). Mothers have also been especially more likely to quit or lose their jobs since the start of the pandemic (Blundell et al, 2020: 298; Hipp and Bünning, 2021: 660; Reichelt et al, 2021: S241) because they have been taking on additional care responsibilities (King et al, 2020; Power, 2020).

Thus, the two dimensions of increased unpaid work and economic insecurity are interrelated. The increase in childcare disproportionately carried out by mothers affects their ability to do paid work (King et al, 2020) and their work-productivity levels (Blundell et al, 2020: 307). Moreover, COVID-19 has intersectional effects, disproportionately impacting structural inequalities at the intersection of gender, race/ethnicity and occupation (Bowleg, 2020). The interaction of gender and race leaves women of colour, single mothers and low-educated women even more vulnerable to the risk of financial issues (Power, 2020: 69; Cook and Grimshaw, 2021: S216), accentuating stratification among women.

Regarding incentives for participation, we argue that COVID-19 triggered specific dynamics with ambivalent effects on political participation. On the one hand, people have been asked to socially distance themselves to keep themselves and the people around them safe from infection. Thus, a restructuring of social norms came into play. Political involvement is encouraged and socially praised in ‘normal’ times. However, due to campaigns like #flattenthecurve and other stay-at-home orders, social contact and collective activities have been considered non-solidary, potentially deterring some people from engaging. Thus, social support has taken place but often in pre-existing close social circles (Bertogg and Koos, 2021). Have these dynamics affected women and men differently? The study by Czymara et al (2021), for example, indicates that individuals’ concerns about the COVID-19 crisis tend to follow traditional gender roles, even among the highly educated: men have been more concerned about paid work and the economy, whereas women have been more concerned about social contacts and childcare.

On the other hand, the pandemic has created incentives for active participation, leading to politicisation on the streets and beyond (see, for example, Borbáth, 2022; della Porta, 2022). As discussed earlier, the anti-containment measures have had negative economic and social consequences. Simultaneously, they have triggered worries about individual and political freedom restrictions. From a grievance perspective (Buechler, 2004), one expects that such mounting dissatisfaction fosters participation among highly affected people in society. This trend seems particularly likely in times of suddenly shifting conditions. In such a context, relative deprivation occurs when people cannot access the resources that they perceive themselves as entitled to, comparing their situation to an ideal scenario or other members of society. Aware of this illegitimate inequality, people will be more likely to take to the streets, motivated by feelings of dissatisfaction, indignation and discontent (van Stekelenburg and Klandermans, 2013). The Great Recession provides a perfect example of how a rapid change in economic prospects can increase participation (see, for example, Grasso and Giugni, 2016; Kurer et al, 2019; Bremer et al, 2020). While the effects may not be long-lasting, grievance theory explains why a shock experience, such as COVID-19, leads to peaks in mobilisation in the short term. Against this background, women who have been more strongly affected by the COVID-19 crisis, experiencing personal and group deprivation, could thus be especially motivated to engage. Put differently, reading the same dynamics sketched earlier as (collective) incentives or suddenly imposed grievances instead of individual resources, one could expect them to mobilise women more than men.

To sum up, we examine a twofold argument explaining the gender gap in political participation during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. Overall, we hypothesise that the gender gap has increased during the pandemic (gender gap hypothesis). From a resource perspective, we expect that the widening gender gap is driven by women being more negatively affected by the economic crisis and increasing unpaid care work than men (resource gap hypothesis). From an incentive perspective, the expectations are mixed, presenting demobilising dynamics due to emerging social norms and mobilising dynamics due to suddenly imposed grievances. As both might play out more strongly for female than male respondents, we expect that the widening gender gap is not driven by women being incentivised to raise their voices more than men (incentive gap hypothesis).

Design and methods

We rely on a two-wave population survey for the German case: the first wave collected from mid-October to early November 2020; and the second wave collected in March 2021.1 Respondents were recruited through an online access panel with quotas for age (five age groups from 18 to 69), gender, education (three levels) and region (east–west) to ensure that the sample is representative of the German population. The original sample includes 3,342 respondents, with 1,004 respondents re-interviewed in the second wave. We applied the same quotas in the second wave, combining it with non-response weights to ensure that the re-interviewed subsample does not significantly differ from the original sample. Online Appendix 1 contains detailed information on the weighting strategy.

Following van Deth (2014), we focus on four participation modes (always aggregating two specific items): institutional participation (that is, contacting a politician or participating in activities of political parties), protest participation (that is, taking part in a legal or illegal protest event), online participation (that is, taking part in an online protest event or posting or sharing political content online) and civic engagement (that is, volunteering or donating money to an organisation). The items were asked with a five-point answer scale: ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘very often’. For the main analysis in this article, we created dummy variables distinguishing those respondents who never engaged from those who did so at least rarely.2 We opted for the dichotomous solution for two reasons: first, we follow standard practice in participation research and consider it a crucial qualitative distinction whether one participates or not. Second, the empirical distributions are highly skewed to the left (see Figure A4 in Online Appendix 4). We also cross-checked the results with additive indices as dependent variables (running from 0 = ‘no participation at all’ to 10 = ‘participated very often in both forms’ [see Online Appendix 5]). The substantive results are not affected by this choice.

We asked respondents in the first survey wave to recall the period from the first lockdown in March 2020 to the interview in October/November 2020. Moreover, we asked the same participation batteries again to measure their behaviour in the year before the pandemic. We know the pitfalls of asking retrospective questions (see, for example, Solga, 2001). Yet, no panel data are available with a participation battery that captures the exact time frame pre-/post-onset of the pandemic. Thus, we opted for this second-best strategy, highlighting that the data do not allow drawing definitive and causal conclusions. Based on research about vote recall bias (see, for example, van Elsas et al, 2014; Valois et al, 2015), we expect to underestimate our general effects. Even if all sources of bias identified in that literature (that is, forgetfulness, non-attitudes and cognitive bias) would affect our findings, van Elsas et al (2014) show that the level of inconstancy is around 10 per cent, with no evidence of gender differences in recall accuracy (see also Auriat, 1991; van der Meer et al, 2016). Also, we followed Hipp et al’s (2020) advice on retrospective survey questions in COVID-19 studies. The authors recommend: (1) focusing on objective information; (2) asking broad questions; and (3) using specific anchor points to increase recall accuracy.3 Finally, we further validate our results by exploiting the within-pandemic panel component. We asked respondents in the second wave to recall the period from November 2020 to the interview in March 2021. This panel component of the survey captures a crucial period marked by renewed restrictions.

The primary independent variable in this study is gender. We share the following broadly accepted considerations regarding the concept: gender and sex are not the same thing, even though they are related; gender and sex are not binary constructs; a person’s gender identity may not match how they are perceived and classified by others; and gender identity can change over time (Westbrook and Saperstein, 2015: 537). However, the questionnaire and quota sampling used in this article impose limitations on measuring the concept. Ultimately, we can only reliably differentiate between people who classified themselves as men or women.

Regarding COVID-19-related shifts in resources, we assess income changes by asking respondents how their household’s financial situation has changed during the pandemic (using a five-point scale from ‘very negative’ to ‘very positive’). We do this for two reasons: first, a question on their exact income is more likely to lead to non-response; and, second, we are interested in their subjective evaluations, which most likely influence their behaviour. The analysis compares those who experienced a (very) negative income change with all others because the interest here lies in reduced resources. Care duties are measured as dummies, indicating whether someone: (1) had to care for children at home (including homeschooling); and (2) had to provide care for other members of the household. We used a social engagement battery for care duties and social support outside of someone’s household, asking respondents whether they helped family or friends with: (1) childcare; and (2) shopping or other daily activities.

Regarding COVID-19-related incentives, we asked respondents to rate government measures to fight the pandemic’s health risks and economic consequences (answer categories: ‘not at all sufficient’, ‘rather not sufficient’, ‘adequate’, ‘rather too extreme’ and ‘too extreme’). For the analysis, we created three groups, aggregating the first and the last two categories to reduce the set of independent variables. We are most interested in the contrast between those content with the measures and those who wanted more or less state intervention, respectively. In addition, we consider four social-structural control variables: age,4 education (three levels), migrant background and whether a respondent lives in Eastern Germany (for details, see Online Appendix 1).

Empirical results

Is the gender gap increasing during the pandemic?

At first, we show aggregate levels of participation across the four modes separately for women and men. The bars in Figure 1 indicate levels from the onset of the pandemic until the first survey wave in autumn 2020. The arrows indicate the changes in the aggregate levels of participation to the pre-pandemic level. First, the descriptive results show that women generally participated less during the COVID-19 crisis than men. This finding holds for all modes of participation. However, the gender gap is most pronounced for institutional involvement, supporting previous research (see, for example, Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010; Stolle and Hooghe, 2011). Second, based on retrospective questions, the descriptive figures do not indicate significant changes in the aggregate gender gap. Most striking is the shift regarding civic engagement: before the pandemic, 40.7 per cent of women were donating to or volunteering for an organisation, compared to 38.0 per cent of men. The pattern has reversed during the pandemic, with women being less involved than men (36.5 per cent versus 38.3 per cent). While not as pronounced, online activities show an opposite trend. Both women and men have become more politically active online, with women showing a slightly stronger upward trend (from 25.4 per cent to 28.5 per cent, compared to 29.3 per cent to 31.5 per cent for men). For the other two modes, the changes in Figure 1 do not hint at pronounced differences in how the pandemic has affected aggregate levels of participation by gender. Protesting has become less frequent for both genders, whereas we can hardly observe any change in institutional activities. Notably, the cross-participation mode differences cancel each other out when focusing on participation in general. Overall, including all forms of political participation, there are hardly any differences in aggregate levels before and during the pandemic: a majority of our sample (51 per cent) has engaged in at least one political or civic activity both in the year before the pandemic and during the first months of the pandemic. Women showed a 2 per cent decline (from 51 to 49 per cent), while men showed a 3 per cent increase (from 49 to 52 per cent).

Descriptive levels of participation before and during the COVID-19 pandemic with different bars for each gender and political participation form. Average levels of participation are higher for men in all forms of engagement. Importantly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, women have become less active then men in all forms of participation except those performed online, where there is an increase compared to pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, even though before the pandemic women were more involved in civic activities, such as donating and volunteering than men, they were 3% less active during the crisis.
Figure 1:

Aggregate levels and change in political participation by gender (%)

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16602276230640

Note: The figure shows the aggregate levels from spring to autumn 2020 (bars) and the change to the year before the onset of the pandemic (arrows).

The aggregate-level results presented thus far provide the first cut of the data. Next, we model individual-level changes in participation with logistic regressions to explain the general trends identified earlier. The following analyses rely on data from the first survey wave unless otherwise specified. Following Rüdig and Karyotis’s (2014) study on the Greek anti-austerity protests, we control for pre-pandemic participation to examine which independent variables are associated with changes in involvement during the COVID-19 crisis. We include the binary gender measure and further key social-structural predictors of participation listed in the methods section as independent variables. We do so to consider compositional differences between men and women, and to compare the substantive impact of gender on (de)activation.

The marginal effects shown in Figure 2 underscore the persistence of pre-pandemic levels of participation: past behaviour is strongly associated with (non-)participation in all four modes during the pandemic. The substantive effect size is smaller for protesting and civic engagement, indicating a more substantial turnover among those volunteering, donating and demonstrating before and during the COVID-19 crisis. Most importantly for our study, the gender effect is negative and statistically significant for all modes of participation, except online participation. These individual-level models support our gender gap hypothesis, indicating that women have been more likely to withdraw from politics during the pandemic. It should be noted that these associations are also found when measuring the dependent variables with additive indices capturing the frequency of participation (for detailed results, see Online Appendix 5).

Coefficient plot showing the average marginal effects of gender and social -structural variables (that is, education, age, migration background, living in Eastern Germany, and having one's income negatively affected by the pandemic) on the probability of participating. Gender negatively influences all modes of participation except online participation. Education is mostly insignificant, while increased age lowers the probability of being active in all forms of political participation. The rest of the variables have insignificant marginal effects.
Figure 2:

The impact of gender and other social-structural variables on changes in participation during the pandemic

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16602276230640

Note: The figure shows the marginal effects of the variables on involvement in the four modes of political participation when controlling for past behaviour. To compare effect sizes, we do not show the effect of past behaviour in the figure, but the full regression tables can be found in Online Appendix 8.

The substantive effect sizes are relatively moderate, however. Women are about 3 per cent more likely to disengage from protest or institutional politics and about 4 per cent more likely to disengage from civic engagement than are men during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a benchmark: we also observe statistically significant effects for age.5 Respondents in their 60s are 10 per cent more likely to withdraw from protesting and about 6 per cent more likely to withdraw from other modes of participation than are respondents in their 20s. By contrast, the effects of the additional social-structural characteristics are, by and large, not statistically significant when controlling for past behaviour. An intriguing exception is that highly educated respondents seem to protest less during the pandemic, suggesting a substantial change in the crowds on the streets.

The results point to the gendered effects of the pandemic on political participation in Germany and support our gender gap hypothesis. Pre-existing gender gaps in institutional, protest and online participation have persisted during the pandemic. Women were already less involved in institutional, protest and online participation before COVID-19 and lost ground in civic engagement during this period. Moreover, at least based on retrospective questions, women were significantly more likely to become deactivated in all modes, except online activities. However, we need to add that the substantive significance of gender on changes in participation has been rather small, mirroring the generally strong persistence of pre-pandemic levels of citizens’ involvement in Europe (see Borbáth et al, 2021). Nevertheless, our results definitely suggest that women have not gained a stronger voice in politics during the pandemic; if anything, they have become a little quieter.

Resources and incentives as cause of participation

As follows, we link the gender gap to the resource–incentive framework by adding to the regression analyses measures for constraints on resources (childcare and other care work at home, as well as childcare and care work for family and friends not living in the same household) and (dis)incentives for participation (dissatisfaction with state measures to fight the health and economic crisis).6 We proceed in four steps: first, we run logistic regressions on the entire sample with these measures as independent variables; second, we perform mediation analyses on the entire sample to uncover how these variables mediate the effects of gender on political participation; third, we run the same regressions as in the first step on split samples based on gender to examine within-gender differences; and, finally, we perform interaction analyses and leverage the within-pandemic panel to analyse whether the uncovered within-gender differences relate to statistically significant cross-gender differences.

To begin with, the results in Figure 3 partially answer why we have not found a strongly increasing gender gap in political participation during the pandemic. As the average marginal effects for the resource-related variables suggest, by and large, these factors did not depress participation. If we observe statistically significant relations, these factors help explain who has become more engaged than they were before the pandemic. Contrary to our resource gap hypothesis, the results suggest that increased burdens motivated people to participate more, not less, even though their time resources decreased. This finding contrasts with our initial hunch to consider care obligations as constraints on the capacity to participate. In contrast, the results align with grievance theory, conceptualising suddenly imposed shifts as incentives for participation.

Coefficient plot with two panels showing the marginal effects of resource variables (that is, childcare at home, care work at home, childcare for family or friends, and care work for family or friends) and incentive variables (that is, the evaluation of health and economic measures put in place to combat the consequences of the pandemic). Almost all resource variables have positive marginal effects on all forms of participation, while incentive variables increase participation in online, institutional, and protest only for those who evaluate governmental measures as too strict.
Figure 3:

The impact of changes in resources and incentives on participation in the pandemic

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16602276230640

Note: These models control for the variables included in Figure 2. The full regression table can be found in Online Appendix 10.

Regarding unpaid care duties (either for children or adults), we find the most substantive effects on civic engagement. Respondents with care duties in close social circles were more likely to volunteer and donate through organisational channels. Not surprisingly, this effect is more substantial in the case of care work for family and friends not living in the same household, as the boundaries of what we label as ‘civic engagement’ and other forms of social support in family and friendship networks are blurry. However, it should be noted that care duties at home and for close social circles not living in the same household are also positively associated with the other three participation modes. Thus, our results suggest that respondents who had to shoulder the burden of ‘imposed volunteering’ (Andersen et al, 2021) have also become more active on the Internet, in the streets and in party politics during the COVID-19 crisis. In broad strokes, what we initially considered breaks in participation tended to act as mobilising factors.

The second panel in Figure 3 shows the impact of pandemic-induced incentives for participation. The four dummies in the model aim to get at the expected politicisation dynamics. We contrast those respondents who either say that the government’s response was insufficient or too strict with those who perceive it as adequate. If these perceptions have significantly affected individuals’ decisions to get politically involved, we find that respondents perceiving the government as too interventionist have been activated. This association is especially strong for how respondents evaluate health crisis management and online participation. However, it also holds for the health–protest and the economy–institutional/protest links. Particularly for protest, this result indicates that we have seen a change in the crowds on the streets, which are now being used by those who fear (lasting) restrictions of individual freedoms and democracy more generally (see Borbáth, 2022). By contrast, perceiving the government as having done too little (in fighting both the health and economic crises) has had the opposite effect on protest participation, that is, it tended to deactivate people compared to their 2019 protest behaviour.

In a series of mediation analyses, we were interested in how much these resources and incentives mediate the impact of gender on political participation. Overall, the results point to partial mediation effects for the care-related but not for the incentive-related variables. Put differently, the mediation analyses indicate that the gender gap in participation during the COVID-19 crisis relates to additional care-work obligations, especially childcare. By contrast, it does not relate to differences in how men and women evaluate the government’s responses to the health and economic crisis. Figure 4 illustrates the mediation analysis for models including childcare (for more detailed results, see Online Appendix 11). As suggested by the regression analysis reported in Figure 3, we observe a partial negative mediation, that is, by and large, the gender gap is reduced given the mobilising effect of care work on political participation. On average, the mediator explains around 20 per cent of the total effect. The findings presented in Figure 4 and Online Appendix 11 show that the coefficients always point in this direction but are mainly statistically significant for childcare at home and for family and friends not living in the same house (a significant indirect effect on all participation forms, except online engagement), as well as other forms of care work outside one’s household (a significant indirect impact on online and civic engagement).

Mediation graphs showing the effect of childcare at home and childcare for family or friends in explaining the relationship between gender and all participation forms. These resource variables partly mediate the relationship between gender and institutional and protest participation.
Figure 4:

Mediation analysis for childcare at home and outside one’s household

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16602276230640

Note: Detailed results for all variables included in the previous models can be found in Online Appendix 11.

The regression and the mediation analyses raise the question of why we have not seen a reduction in the gender gap given the mobilising power of care work during the COVID-19 pandemic. To answer this question, we ran the initial regressions separately for men and women in a third step, considering that the various variables might make a stronger difference when looking at within-group effects. The split-sample regressions allow us to uncover within-gender differences, equivalent to running a fully interacted model. Figure 5 graphically presents the results of these regressions. Regarding COVID-19-related resource shifts, the results point to one main difference regarding within-gender effects: while men with childcare obligations at home have become more politically active than their childless male peers, we do not find such differences among our female respondents. Importantly, this activation effect among men can be observed for online, institutional and protest participation but not for civic engagement. The results for care-work obligations outside the respondent’s household point in a similar direction but are less clear-cut. Regarding the incentives, the results corroborate the mediation analysis, as we find no substantial differences within the male and female samples.

Figure 5:
Figure 5:

The impact of changes in resources and incentives on participation in the pandemic – split regressions for men and women

Citation: European Journal of Politics and Gender 2022; 10.1332/251510821X16602276230640

In a final step, we perform two types of additional regression analyses to further examine the differences in the mobilising power of COVID-19-related burdens among female and male respondents. On the one hand, we run a series of logistic regressions, interacting all resource and incentive measures at a time with gender (for details, see Online Appendix 13). On the other hand, we relied on the within-pandemic panel component to examine whether these variables affected the likelihood of men and women changing their participation patterns during another period of extensive restrictions on public and private life (for details, see Online Appendix 14). In general, the two types of analyses underline that especially childcare obligations have had different effects for women than men: childcare obligations during the pandemic tended to activate men to become involved in politics more strongly than they activated women. These mobilising effects are substantively larger in the case of institutional and protest politics than in the case of online and civic activities. While the results for the policy evaluations are less clear-cut (as already shown in Figure 5), they also hint at the fact that perceiving the government’s measures as insufficient tended to demobilise women with such beliefs more than they did their male counterparts.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has had detrimental effects on gender equality. As our results suggest, these effects can also be observed when focusing on political participation. First, based on retrospective survey questions, our results indicate that the COVID-19 crisis has seen no narrowing of the gender gap in participation. If at all, we observe that women have further lost their political voice compared to men. This finding is particularly problematic in the case of participation modes, such as volunteering or donating, where women seem to have lost their lead during the pandemic. Second, and contrary to our resource gap hypothesis, the increasing gender gap cannot be explained by COVID-19-related constraints on resources, such as an increase in care-work responsibilities at home and the need to provide help outside one’s household. Instead, these factors acted as suddenly imposed grievances, fostering more, not less, participation among those who experienced them. Yet, why have these factors not led to closing the gender gap in participation? Our further cross-gender analyses indicate that while additional care work, notably childcare, has politicised male respondents, it had a much weaker effect on women.

Our study is not without limits. On the one hand, there are dynamics of gender and the pandemic that we could not explore due to a lack of appropriate data. Women, for example, are over-represented in the healthcare and education sectors, being particularly affected by the pandemic (Alon et al, 2020; Cook and Grimshaw, 2021). These sectors have demanded longer work hours and extensive adjustments that overburdened women disproportionally and probably further limited their ability to engage in civic and political life. On the other hand, our results must be interpreted with caution. Given the lack of suitable panel studies covering the exact time frame pre-/post-onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we opted for retrospective questions and a within-pandemic, two-wave panel design. Therefore, we cannot provide any causal evidence, only suggestive evidence, on the associations between gender and political participation. Similarly, the measurement of household-related activities might be biased, as some studies show that men are more likely than women to overestimate their time spent on childcare and housework (Lee and Waite, 2005).

While this article makes a first step in examining the relationship between COVID-19, gender and political participation, further research should address its methodological limits and explore how lasting these effects will be and what consequences they may have on women’s representation, the saliency of gender-related issues in policymaking and gender equality at large. If women are bouncing back to pre-crisis participation rates, then the loss of representation may be avoided because of their short-term deactivation. Unfortunately, as developments after previous pandemics indicate, negative consequences often persist longer in the case of women than men (Power, 2020). Also, future research should investigate how women’s self-efficacy has been affected by a period of a relative lack of activity. If women have lost confidence in their ability to fight for their needs, this could negatively affect women’s willingness to get involved in the long term. Finally, future research should move beyond individual-level explanations. It should consider cross-national variation and pay attention to the mobilisation efforts in the pandemic. Notably, political parties and social movement organisations from the Radical Right have been at the forefront of anti-containment mobilisation in Germany and other European countries. Their differing appeal to men and women might partly explain why we uncover in our study differences in the mobilising power of pandemic-induced burdens and policy evaluations across genders. Put differently, future research should shift from the demand side (with women having had many reasons to raise their voice) to the supply side of mobilisation (with women potentially lacking the right mobilising agents to provide opportunities to act on behalf of their demands).

Notes

1

The data were collected in ‘The Potentials of Civil Society’ project financed by the Berlin University Alliance’s ‘Special Call: Pandemic Research’. The project combines individual survey data (collected with the survey company Respondi) and a survey of civil society organisations. For the data and syntax used for this article, see Burciu and Hutter (2022).

2

For the question wordings and descriptive statistics, see Online Appendixes 2 and 3.

3

We added an introductory sentence to the retrospective battery, asking respondents to think back to the times before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. After that, we asked, ‘In the year before the coronavirus crisis: how often did you …’, referencing the broad sets of participation forms (not specific events or actions).

4

In the main models, age is included as a categorical variable, with five levels (18–29, 30–39, 40–49, 50–59 and 60–69). We model age as a categorical variable to be in line with the quota-sampling strategy and because we are also interested in its non-linear effect. In Online Appendix 6, we provide a robustness check by measuring age as a continuous variable. The results do not substantively differ.

5

Using the data from the second wave of the survey, we also examined whether male respondents are more likely to report being involved for the first time in certain forms of participation than are women. Additional regression analyses (see Online Appendix 7) indicate that this is the case.

6

It should be noted that in an additional analysis reported in Online Appendix 9, we show that, as expected from the scholarly discourse, women have taken on more care obligations during the pandemic than have men, which is also reflected in women being more likely to agree that the state’s response to economic hardships has been insufficient.

Funding

The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the Volkswagen Foundation (Lichtenberg Grant) and the Berlin University Alliance (Special Call ‘Pandemic Research’).

Acknowledgements

We thank all members of the project ‘The Potentials of Civil Society: Solidarity and Crisis Management’: Endre Borbáth, Gesine Höltmann, Alexandra Klepp, Aaron Petrasch, Ines Schäfer, Ania Spatzier, Jule Specht, Christian von Scheve and Philipp Wunderlich. Moreover, we thank Heike Klüver, Hanna Schwander and the other participants at the Berlin–Brandenburg Political Behaviour Colloquium 2021 for their helpful feedback on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Author biographies

Roxana Burciu is a doctoral candidate at the Department for Social and Political Sciences at Università Bocconi, Italy.

Swen Hutter is Lichtenberg Professor in Political Sociology at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and Vice Director of the Centre for Civil Society Research, a joint initiative by Freie Universität and WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • View in gallery
    Figure 1:

    Aggregate levels and change in political participation by gender (%)

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2:

    The impact of gender and other social-structural variables on changes in participation during the pandemic

  • View in gallery
    Figure 3:

    The impact of changes in resources and incentives on participation in the pandemic

  • View in gallery
    Figure 4:

    Mediation analysis for childcare at home and outside one’s household

  • View in gallery
    Figure 5:

    The impact of changes in resources and incentives on participation in the pandemic – split regressions for men and women

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Roxana BurciuUniversità Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, Italy

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Swen HutterFreie Universität Berlin and WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany

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