May 21, 2009

Court of Public Opinion Sides with Women on Empathy

by Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center

President Obama says empathy is one of the qualities he’ll be looking for in a new U.S. Supreme Court justice. Meantime, his White House has floated a list of possible nominees that’s stacked heavily with women.

Coincidence? Not if you consider the 2008 verdict from the court of public opinion in the intriguing case of Gender v. Character.

A Pew Research Center survey taken last year found that 80% of Americans believe that women, generally speaking, are more compassionate than men, while just 5% say men are the more compassionate sex. Empathy and compassion aren’t synonymous, but they’re close cousins. The dictionary defines the former as “an ability to share in another’s feelings” and the latter as “sorrow for the troubles of another, accompanied by an urge to help.”

According to the survey, compassion is far from the only character trait that’s more of a ladies’ thing. Gentlemen, brace yourselves: the public (about half of whom, remember, are guys) thinks women have it all over us on all sorts of qualities that are attractive not just in a judge but in anyone.

Who’s more honest? Among this nationally-representative sample of 2,250 adults, 50% say women; just 20% say men and the rest say both equally or have no opinion.

Who’s more intelligent? Some 38% say women, just 14% say men.

Who’s more creative? Some 62% say women, just 11% say men.

Did men get any love at all from this jury? Not a whole lot. Their “wins” tended to come in the wrong categories. Men dominated on arrogance (70% say that’s mostly a male trait; 10% say it’s mostly a female trait) and they ran up a 3-2 margin on stubbornness.

The guys had just one victory worth crowing about: they carried decisiveness, albeit by a not terribly decisive margin of 4-3. They also registered a pair of what might be dubbed Pyrrhic losses. By a ratio of 2-1, the public says women are more manipulative than men; and by a ratio of 17-1(!), the public says women are more emotional than men.

The survey tested three additional traits. Men and women were dead even on two of them (ambitious, hardworking) and women prevailed on the third (outgoing).

For anyone keeping score, that’s women over men by 7-3, with two ties, on a battery of a dozen traits.

But what about brand loyalty? Didn’t survey respondents tend to grade their own on a more forgiving curve? As a matter of fact, they did — but for the guys, gender solidarity only carried so far. Male respondents gave their gender the better rating on just 5 of the 12 traits tested. Women gave themselves the better rating on 9 traits out of 12. They concede by a narrow margin that they are the less decisive sex; by 3-2 margin that they are the more manipulative sex; and by a near unanimous margin that they are the more emotional sex (though there’s no way of telling from this survey whether they view those last two traits in a negative light).

One final demographic pattern of note: black women stand out for the sweep of their pro-female attitudes. They say women are more hard-working than men by a ratio of 5-2; more intelligent by a ratio of 11-1; and more honest by a ratio of 13-1.

Margins that size invite one more question: Ladies, where’s the empathy?