June 27, 2013

Why boys with sisters are more likely to be Republicans

Credit: Rafe Swan / Getty Images
Credit: Rafe Swan / Getty Images

Interesting things happen when little boys grow up with sisters: They are less likely to help mom with housekeeping chores—and they’re more likely to grow up to be Republicans, according to a new paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of Politics (doc).

Young men who were raised with sisters also are more likely to express socially conservative views on attitudes about gender roles, claim authors Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra.

“Having sisters makes males more politically conservative in terms of their gender role attitudes and their partisanship,” they wrote. “Particularly for gender role attitudes, we find that these political socialization effects persist until respondents are well into adulthood.”

The analysis is based on surveys of more than 3,000 individuals each that were conducted in 2006 and 2008 as part of the ongoing National Longitudinal Survey of Youth’s Children and Young Adults. The survey series, which began in 1987, follows the progress of children 10 years of age and older who were born to women who participated in an earlier large-sample survey fielded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Respondents were in their 20s and 30s at the time of the 2008 survey, though most of the respondents “were on the young side of this range,” the authors wrote.

Using a sophisticated statistical technique designed to identify causal relationships, they found that the impact of having sisters rises as the share of siblings who are sisters increases.

At the extreme, they found that young men who grew up with sisters but no brothers in their household are 8.3 percentage points more likely to identify with the Republican Party than boys who grow up with only brothers.

The sister effect is smaller but still statistically significant when it comes to attitudes explicitly related to gender roles. Men who had sisters were 3.8 percentage points more likely to agree that “a woman’s place is in the home” than men who did not, wrote Healy, an economist who teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Mahhotra, a Stanford University political scientist.

The researchers found that birth order and age difference between siblings also play a role in views on gender and politics.  “The sibling gender effect is stronger for respondents who are close to their siblings in age and somewhat stronger for first-born respondents,” they wrote.

The researchers also found that while growing up with sisters had an impact on young boys, it had no significant effect on young girls; their political or gender attitudes as young adults were no different from those of women who did not grow up with sisters.

So why are boys with sisters more inclined to identify with the GOP as young men? Researchers have found that sisters are more likely than their brothers to help wash the dishes, sweep the floor and do other traditionally gender-stereotyped tasks around the house.  For example, in the data they examined, about 60% of boys but 82% of girls 10 and older with younger siblings told interviewers they were expected to help with the dishes.

This early exposure to gender stereotyping, the researchers argue, translates into more socially conservative views in later life.

But does the sister effect persist across an individual’s lifetime?  We’ll have to wait to see what happens when these young people are interviewed in future surveys.

Other data suggest the answer may be no. Healy and Malhotra analyzed data collected in the University of Michigan’s Political Socialization Panel study. For this project the same individuals were interviewed four times between 1965 and 1997.

In the early waves of the survey they found about a 15 percentage-point difference in the probability that men in their late teens and 20s would be Republicans. But the “sisters effect” slowly diminished in later surveys as these men moved into their 30s and had dropped to a statistically insignificant 5.7 percentage points by 1997 when most were in their mid- to late-40s.

At the same time, they found that some socially conservative attitudes toward gender persisted far longer. Respondents in the four waves were asked if “mothers should remain at home with young children and not work outside the home.”

In the final survey in 1997, men in their 40s with sisters were still 12.5 percentage points more likely to agree with this statement than men with only brothers.

Are gender roles within families changing?  Studies by the Pew Research Center suggest the answer is yes. See our reports: Modern Parenthood, A Tale of Two Fathers, Modern Marriage.

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Gender, Family and Relationships, Political Party Affiliation

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is a senior editor focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Guest4 years ago

    Truth is, Republican men expect women to do all the chores rather than share, which is why divorce and domestic violence rates are higher in red states. Republican men are very domineering, especially when it comes to dating, romance, and marriage, not letting women have their say at all.

    And boys who do have less sisters and plenty of brothers are more likely to vote Republican, that is.

  2. BC4 years ago

    I’m not sure why growing up with a sister would make someone more likely to value individual freedom over collectivism, equality of opportunity over equality of results, and to have more faith in individuals and firms than in the government. However, the failure of the researchers to ask these questions is what reveals their biases. Biases are reflected in the questions people ask and the interpretations they impose on data more often than the data itself.

    1. BC4 years ago

      For example, maybe when boys grow up with sisters, they learn through actual experience that families can figure out for themselves which roles different people can play and, thus, don’t need government to try to socially engineer those arrangements. Also, maybe because they see their own sisters as unique individuals, they are less likely to view women as just a collective demographic group and, thus, are less attracted by the special-interest group mentality that is typical of left-leaning politics.

      1. TI4 years ago

        Boys who were raised in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the average American home had a lot less responsibility for household chores than boys from the earlier part of the 20th century.

        When the men came home from World War II, the women who had worked the factories and other jobs to keep the states in working order were faced with overwhelming pressure to return to their kitchens and nurseries. They were bribed with home appliances that claimed to make all their housework effortless.

        Dad went to the factory, or the office. Mom stayed at home and kept house, and took care of all of the children by herself. She was told that all her efforts should be for her husband and children, and nothing for herself.

        Dad looked down on household chores as Women’s work. Daughters were expected to help Mom, and learn to be just like her. Sons were required to work much less to maintain the family household once everyone had moved from an agricultural setting and into the suburbs.

        To this day, some men refuse to learn how to take care of themselves — to do laundry, cook, clean their home. Why they choose to live like adolescents their whole life is a mystery.

    2. Peter kang3 years ago

      The researchers only reported a correlation, not a causation. Why are you getting so defensive over it? Maybe it touched a nerve?

  3. Saskia Valentine4 years ago

    Maybe Pew should ask the brothers why they felt this way. Does having sisters make them feel more protective towards women? Did they so much enjoy the nurturing they received that they feel every man should have a woman to come home to?

    Is this also true for fathers of daughters? Do they behave more conservatively than fathers of only sons?

    1. Andy Nguyen4 years ago

      yes, but this article is a mirror of another.

    2. Guest4 years ago

      Well, most conservative men, especially those who vote Republican, are very protective of women, wives and girlfriends who vote the same, and even territorial, overbearing, and possessive. Let’s face it, they freak whenever their women talk to liberal men, especially Democrats who they see as bad.

  4. John Quinn4 years ago

    OK, I didn’t think they were in it for the women.

  5. james lewman4 years ago

    After reading this thread I got to say congratulations to the people who commented you appear brighter then the so call researchers.

  6. Steve4 years ago

    I am 67 year old far left liberal atheist. My 65 year old sister is a born again evangelical far right tea bagger Republican. We lived in different States for most of our adult lives and kept in touch regularly. We now live in the same small retirement community and she told me to stay away from her and her family because I won’t let her dictate the rules for caring for my elderly father. I’d rather be dead than be a Republican.

    1. Monica4 years ago

      Just a thought: perhaps being called a “tea bagger Republican” is not something she enjoys hearing..

      1. Austin4 years ago

        The term ‘tea bagger Republican’ says volumes about your prejudice and homophobia more than it does of her.

        1. Chitra Mitra1 year ago

          How was he being homophobic? The term “tea bagger Republican” may indicate negative feeling towards conservative ideology, but I don’t think it’s homophobic at all. Actually, aren’t Republicans the homophobic ones?

  7. jiim4 years ago

    It doesn’t appear that the study atttempts to do any comparison or correlation between “men growing up in large families” with “men growing up with sisters.” Families with multiple children tend to correlate with religious conservativism, no? (Mormon families, for instance). Therefore men with sisters are also more likely to have grown up in large (conservative-trending) families and are more likely to vote Republican.

  8. Please…4 years ago

    Ah, yes. It isn’t possible that people could reason their way into conservatism. I mean, no one could exercise their free will and be conservative… so let’s find some structural correlation and call it science…

    1. person4 years ago

      People tend to rationalize far more than they reason.

  9. Dcreaven4 years ago

    I think boys’ mother’s attitudes and behavior and the father’s attitudes toward women and the mother would have far greater influence concerning gender stereotyping than sisters who have far less power than parents and less relevance as far as cultural conditioning is concerned.

    1. person4 years ago

      Indirectly, that is what this study is suggesting- conservative men are more likely to grow up in households where gender differences are emphasized. That is ultimately on the parents, not the sisters.

  10. robert deskin4 years ago

    What is the effect of race, is this only Caucasians? Do you expect a black man to be a Republican more than 5% or so of the time? Do the boys have requirements girls do not have such as yard work or outside jobs?
    Frame the questions properly and you get any preconceived answer you want.

    1. Rich Morin4 years ago

      Good question! The statistical technique the authors used–two-stage OLS with an instrumental variable–produces estimates of the impact of the independent variable of interest (boys with/without sisters) after accounting for variation associated with other factors including. the authors write, “mother’s race, mother’s number of siblings, grandmother’s education, etc.” So if we were talking about black men, the model would estimate that the likelihood of a black man with all sisters being a Republican is slightly higher than one with no sisters, but that the probability is sill very, very low for both men. As for boys doing yard work: That would only reinforce gender stereotypes, which the authors suspect produces the sisters effect. As for jiggling the question to come up with a preconceived answer, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. If you have the right tools and the right skills, no need to play fast and loose with data.

  11. jay4 years ago

    The result is very interesting, but instead of exploring the nuances of this, including the evolutionary and psychological components, they just drag out an ideology driven contrived explanation.

  12. Wade Sears4 years ago

    this study seems incredibly biased! while it seems statistically significant to say ‘8.3%’ leaned Republican; the questions are designed to give this type of false equivalence: in practical terms – out of 3000 survey participants, 249 fell onto the accepted survey answer.
    leaving 2751 persons in the survey that did NOT fall into the preconceived idea.

    and that is if the complicated statistical analysis only looked at assumed casual relationships. (“Using a sophisticated statistical technique designed to identify causal relationships, …”)

    regardless, this is a nonsense question because it only seeks to identify gender- stereotype in behavior regarding political beliefs, which is hard to reconcile as the only basis for a political ideology.

    1. Grade 8 Statistics4 years ago


      8.3% more likely to vote Republican is not the same as 8.3% vote Republican (except of course when baseline Republican support is 7.7%).

  13. Dani4 years ago

    The research that needs to be done is: are man with more conservative gender roles views more likely to be divorced? I know I would not be able to be married to a man who thought my “place” was @ the home…
    It would explain why red states have such greater divorce rates…

  14. J. M. WalkerJr.4 years ago

    This is like a lot studies — interesting, but irelevant. I do not remember my younger sister doing the dishes. My brother and I did them every night.

    1. nchoirnmind4 years ago

      Scientists have an expression:
      Anecdote =/= data

      1. Chili Dogg4 years ago

        Data = lots of anecdotes

  15. asociologist4 years ago

    @pjay : These are political scientists, fyi.

    1. joseph fleischman4 years ago

      So what?

  16. RP4 years ago

    This just further confirms the unrelenting basis of academia and media against conservatives and their values. To only put out that these men are less likely to “wash dishes or clean house” as appalling and sexist values without balancing it with area in which they may take on more prominent roles in the household is ridiculous. The key within any household is balance toguarantee that all necessary work gets done, and if that happens under traditional roles, there isn’t anything inherently wrong or sexist about that.

    1. joseph fleischman4 years ago

      But the article said nothing remotely like “appalling” or “sexist”, although it is sexist to view housework as a woman’s job. As Shakespeare said “thou protests too strongly”.

  17. pjay4 years ago

    Given the time frame and the dates of the studies, I doubt they have any relevance today.

    Have they been replicated? Probably not. What is the uncertainty for the data points? Not mentioned. Garbage pseudoscience reigns supreme in the the sociology field today.

    1. joseph fleischman4 years ago

      None of your criticisms stand up.

    2. Edward4 years ago

      Did you even read the study? Morin is summarizing a research paper for a lay audience, not writing one. Any mathematical or methodological concerns should be constructed relative to the underlying research. Such issues are elided here by design, since most of the audience is not statisticians.

  18. Be Be4 years ago

    This is why it’s vitally important to raise your children in gender neutral ways. Expectations of chores and helping out should have NO gender bias. Even large numbers liberal parents have demonstrably gendered attitudes, particularly among those with stay at home moms and even more among homeschooling moms. Most of these moms would probably not say they were raising up any sons to have opportunity to do whatever they want, but raising up daughters to stay home with Their kids and continue the cycle of breeder-sainthood. And yet, this may be what they are doing.

    1. jay4 years ago

      Do not forget, we are first and foremost mammals (and primates). Virtually ALL mammals (and especially primates) have substantial behavioral differences between the genders. Generally, when ideology confronts biology, biology wins.

  19. Art4 years ago

    Interesting, the habits at home may reflect future unconscious effects from gender roles when they were a child.