Research Findings

Gender Segregation in Civic Life – Women’s and Men’s Involvement in Voluntary Associations

October 26, 2023

Many social settings are gender-segregated: At the workplace, in higher education, and in friendship cliques, women and men typically encounter peers of their own gender. This separation slows down efforts toward gender equality because women and men get access to different resources through their social networks and engage in gender-typed behaviors and activities. But much less is known about gender segregation in civic life. Voluntary associations, such as sports clubs, community associations, or leisure groups, are often viewed as places that bring communities together and equalize access to social resources. However, previous research suggests – often based on highly simplified figures – that voluntary associations are segregated along gendered lines as well: Women and men are usually involved in different types of associations and perform different voluntary work, often matching broader gender stereotypes and extending traditional patterns of labor division to community life. For example, while women pull together in school- or care-related organizations, men more often meet each other in sports clubs and local political parties. 

But how exactly does gender segregation in civic life unfold and how does it come about? In our study, we address these questions by analyzing German survey data from the National Educational Panel Survey. A special feature of this survey data is that it contains respondents’ own descriptions of the type of associations they are involved in at two points in time (in 2012/13 and 2016/17). This enables us not only to summarize respondents’ involvement in very detailed types of associations but also to determine involvement trajectories (i.e., whether someone joins or quits an association).  

Our results show how gender segregation unfolds across types of associations. Women are overrepresented in parents’, social care, and religious associations. By contrast, men are disproportionally involved in political, employment, hobby, and technical associations. This division indicates an extension of gendered responsibilities in civic life. While men are also overrepresented in most sports associations offering team- or racket sports, women more often participate in gymnastics-, aerobic-, horse-riding-, and dancing clubs – again matching gendered stereotypes. Most types of community and social associations have overall rather even gender distributions (neighborhood-, sociability/carnival-, and youth associations).  

We also demonstrate that there is segregation within types of associations – on top of the segregation across them. Focusing on the seven most popular types of associations in Germany, we find substantive gender segregation within five of them (religious- and neighborhood organizations, soccer- and other sports, and choirs). In these types of associations, women and men systematically get in contact more often with co-participants of their own gender than we would expect based on the association types’ gender compositions. Potential reasons for such segregation within association types include the existence of designated gender-specific organizations of subunits (e.g., men’s choir, or women’s football team) and gender-stereotypical activities and task assignments in organizations (e.g., women sell cake and men repair the organizations’ facilities). Only in two types of associations (parents’ and political associations), women and men display no further sorting tendencies – potentially because these types of associations less often differentiate subunits or tasks by gender. 

Finally, we show that most of the gender segregation in civic life comes about because women and men join associations in which they then get exposed to people of their own gender. This tendency is to a large extent driven by the sex composition of people’s friendship networks. Because women more often have other women as friends, they are more likely to be asked to join women-dominated associations. Furthermore, we find that men endorsing traditional gender norms are more reluctant to join women-dominated associations than their peers supporting egalitarian values.  

In sum, our results highlight that there is gender segregation across and within types of associations. The gendered sorting into associations results – in part – from the gendered structure of friendship networks and traditional gender norms. 

What are the takeaways? Gender segregation in civic life can further solidify the importance of gender in society. By disproportionately connecting men with men and women with women, voluntary associations might perpetuate gender differences in access to other opportunities. Moreover, stereotypical gender ideologies can be internalized as children observe women in school-related organizations and men in the voluntary fire brigade from an early age. Those interested in advancing gender equality should thus carefully think about potential ways to facilitate contact between women and men in voluntary organizations.  

Read more

Kasimir Dederichs and Nan Dirk de Graaf. “Gender Segregation in Civic Life: Women’s and Men’s Involvement in Voluntary Associations” in Gender & Society 2023.

image: via pxhere (CC0)

This post was originally published on the GENDER & SOCIETY blog

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