Sweden adopted a feminist foreign policy in 2014. Women are politically mobilized and Sweden’s internal social policy has tried to reduce gender stereotypical thinking.
This prompted us to ask: Are there gender differences in political attitudes or does movement toward equality lead to fewer gender differences of opinion? We are particularly interested in opinions about vital issues of security such as military threats, criminality and terrorism.
When women have power do their attitudes still differ from men? To answer this question, we carried out focus groups and a large nationwide representative survey with 3078 participants. We found some intriguing gender differences in attitudes.
In the focus groups, we learned that women seemed to more prone to link security threats to personal safety, while men associated security with military threats to state and society. Young women, in particular, talked about fears of going to musical concerts, airports, or larger cities, due to the risk of terror acts and sexual harassment.
This personal reflection on security was predominant amongst women and almost totally lacking among men. The survey further confirmed significant differences in the opinions of men and women about the causes and solutions to military threats, criminality and terrorism.
Our findings support an argument that women and men develop use different voices in moral reasoning. Women’s responses to moral issues tend to conform to an ethic of care, showing concern for protecting the vulnerable, viewing human beings as interrelated. Men were less inclined to support an ethic of care.
Women were significantly less likely to support repressive measures than men. Women were also more inclined to understand security problems as structural and referred to such causes such as macho cultures, segregation and injustices.
Men were more willing to focus blame on individuals or particular groups. Women, more often than men, supported preventive measures to provide individuals with opportunities to choose ‘the right path’, such as education and supporting socio-economically deprived areas in Sweden. Women were also greater supporters of diplomacy and dialogue in international security.
We also noted generational differences Young men were, for example, less opposed to structural explanations than older men. Young women were also more likely to adopt an ethic of care than older women were. Young women were most supportive of female leadership as a way of reduce military threats. Young women most echoed the governmental strategies of the feminist foreign policy.
The takeaways – progress or backlash?
We saw clear evidence that women and men differ in their understanding of security problems and solutions. Yet, more research are needed in order to explain the causes of those of differences. We wonder if security policies guided by an ethics of care might be met with backlash. We noted several negative comments about Sweden’s feminist foreign policy in response to open-ended questions. Answers included respondents saying that the causes of military threat was the ‘foreign minister Margot Wallström’ (who crafted and held major responsibility for the feminist foreign policy), ‘women’, and ‘feminism’.
Perhaps when women and feminist ideas gain ground and guide policy, counter reactive forces set in play. Such reactionary could create turmoil even as Sweden’s feminist foreign policy tries to move us forward to better international relations.
Charlotte Wagnsson is Professor of Political Science at the Swedish Defense University. She received her PhD from Stockholm University in 2000 and has published on a range of issues relevant to European and global security. Wagnsson currently directs a research group focusing on malign information influence and the use of strategic narratives in the security sphere. She has published her work at Routledge and Manchester University Press and in journals such as International Political Sociology, New Media and Society, Journal of Common Market Studies and Journal of European Public Policy.