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Guns vs. Butter: Gender Differences on National Budget

Running Numbers by Emily Sullivan
Crowd of legislators separated by gender.

Chicago Council data support academic findings on differing national budget preferences between women and men.

As of January 2022, women hold 26 percent of the seats in national legislatures around the world. While this figure falls far short of gender parity, it does represent significant progress in representation levels. As women begin to hold a greater share of the seats in national legislatures, data can offer insights into how women’s priorities may differ from men’s. Legislatures in many countries have tremendous indirect influence over the direction of foreign policy via the “power of the purse,” which is the power to determine how the national government spends money.

Data from the 2021 Chicago Council Survey show that, at the public level, women in the United States have significantly different spending priorities than their male counterparts, placing less emphasis on defense spending and more on education and social programs.

Defense Spending Higher Priority for Men Than Women

When asked to allocate a hypothetical $100 federal budget between a number of spending categories, female respondents earmarked significantly less money than males to defense spending ($10.26 vs. $13.70). Women primarily allocated that additional money to education spending ($17.46 vs. $13.59 for men), but also spent more money than men did on environmental protection ($10.59 vs. $8.02) and welfare and unemployment programs at home ($8.33 vs $7.77). Similarly, in 2020 when asked whether federal budget allocations in different categories should be expanded, cut back, or kept about the same, women were more likely than men to favor expanding healthcare (74% women, 63% men), aid to education (73% women, 67% men), and social security (61% women, 54% men). Expansions in these areas were favored by majorities of both women and men, but the higher levels of female support are statistically significant.

To some extent, these differences in spending preferences reflect the foreign policy goals men and women each see as most important for the United States. Out of all the potential goals presented on the 2021 survey, the one on which men and women disagreed the most was maintaining US military superiority. A majority of men (54%) consider this as a very important foreign policy goal, and men rate military superiority sixth out of the 14 goals included on the survey. On the other hand, only 45 percent of women classified maintaining US military superiority as very important, and women ranked this goal 11th in importance. Instead, women were more likely than men to rank combating world hunger (54% women, 45% men), preventing and combating global pandemics (70% women, 63% men), and limiting climate change (56% women, 51% men) as very important.

Similarities at the Elite Level

These findings at the public level mirror research on differences in spending preferences between male and female policymakers. For example, an empirical study conducted by Michael Koch and Sarah Fulton finds that, among established democracies, average military spending in a country decreases significantly as the proportion of female legislators increases. There is also a large body of empirical and anecdotal research finding that legislatures that have more female representatives spend more on social welfare programs. Most scholars argue that these differences in spending preferences are not due to a more inherently pacifistic nature among women, instead proposing that lived experiences and the roles women play within society allow them to conceptualize security as encompassing more than defense spending.

Beyond the fact that equal gender representation in government has inherent value, there is evidence that the spending preferences of female legislators may lead to better outcomes for states. A recent study by Arizona State University’s Sara Shair-Rosenfield and Reed Wood finds that the prioritization of welfare spending over military spending is one of the key reasons that states with more female representation in legislature have lower rates of conflict reoccurrence following a peace settlement.

International Women’s Day is an apt opportunity to reflect on the ways that the world might be different if women were equally represented in governing bodies. While Chicago Council data do not find many notable differences between the foreign policy preferences of men and women, government spending is one area where responses diverge significantly. These data, along with academic research on female policymakers, suggest that increasing the level of female representation in government could lead to less defense-heavy national budgets, and more spending on government services and welfare programs.

About the Author
Emily Sullivan
Former Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
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Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 and was a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.
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