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Alice Evans: “In times of scarcity, we are more likely to blame immigrants or women”

The social scientist on why young men are growing more conservative and young women more progressive.

By Pippa Bailey

Across the world, a political divide is opening up between young men and women. Gen Z are not moving together as a single, ideological unit, as have previous generations, but are pulling away from each other, with men growing more conservative and women more progressive. In the US, Gallup data shows women aged 18 to 30 are 30 percentage points more liberal than men of the same age; in the UK, the gap is 25 points. One study found more than half of men aged 18 to 23 believe that “in America today, men have it harder than women”. In the UK, research from King’s College London showed a quarter of men aged 16 to 29 think it is harder to be a man than a woman, while two thirds of women their age believe the opposite.

The gender gap is particularly acute in South Korea. In the country’s 2022 presidential election, 58 per cent of men aged 18 to 29 voted for the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, who stood on an anti-feminist platform, while the same percentage of women the same age voted for the Democratic candidate. “Young men were becoming more liberal right up until 2016,” the social scientist Alice Evans, recently returned from a trip to Seoul for her book The Great Gender Divergence, told me when we met in London. That was the year #MeToo came to South Korea. “Feminist protests broke out. Women mobilised in a show of solidarity against very real inequalities.”

Korea has a long-standing problem with spycams, used to secretly record people, and women marched under the slogan: “My life is not your porn”. Men protested against the marches, some shouting feminism was “a mental illness”. Bae In-kyu, the head of the anti-feminist group Man on Solidarity, called it “a social evil”.

Yoon and Bae are examples of what Evans calls “cultural entrepreneurs” – think of Andrew Tate – who “politicise legitimate grievances”. In South Korea, for example, the issue of mandatory conscription is used to build a narrative that life is unfair to men. “If [Jordan] Peterson were to say [that is] unfair, that’s sexist and harmful to men, I’d agree,” she said. But conscription doesn’t negate the fact that South Korea has the biggest gender pay gap in the OECD. “The other big factor for men becoming more resentful of women is social media echo chambers. People self-select and choose to make friends with people like them… but social media just amplifies this.”

Why was the counter-reaction to #MeToo so strong in South Korea? Evans points to its sex-ratio imbalance, which developed owing to a declining birth rate and a preference for sons. Around 800,000 “extra” men have been born since the mid-1980s. This means “the [straight] dating market is very bad if you’re a Korean guy, because you’ve got loads of men and not that many women… When you feel your lot in life is crappy, and there aren’t enough women, you express resentment.”

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Another key dynamic Evans identified during her time in Seoul is the Korean concept of nunchi: “That you should be socially aware, you should listen more than you talk, you should anticipate and recognise others’ wants… There’s quantitative data [showing] that East Asians prioritise collective harmony over self-assertion.” This “has real consequences… If you think it’s bad to rock the boat, you stay quiet. There’s evidence from Spain and the US that when women have mobilised, men reacted in backlash.” But #MeToo protests seemed particularly repellent to South Korean society: “This isn’t nunchi,” some onlookers felt, “it’s showing a lack of collective harmony.”

The factor that unites South Korea, the US, the UK and other countries in which there is a growing gender gap is competition for what Evans calls “necessarily finite status goods” such as a prestigious education or a committed partner. In the US, an Ivy League degree and a successful romantic relationship bestow status upon men. But the average Ivy League admittance rate is just over 7 per cent, a higher percentage of US men than women are unpartnered, and less financially successful men are more likely to be single. Evans believes men are particularly affected because they “fundamentally care about status”. If they perceive scarcity – of finance or opportunity – resentment and hostile sexism can grow.

“When we perceive scarcity, we might be more likely to blame immigrants or women, these people who are ‘trespassing’ on the fixed basket of stuff.” In this way, Evans sees hostility towards women’s rights following a similar pattern to the rise of populism in Europe. Visiting Poland last year, she observed that people were told “stories that immigrants were pushing up house prices [and] contributing to inflation. If you’re already feeling that your business is struggling, you’re like: that makes sense to me. It’s just storytelling.”

The first thing Evans, 37, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, told me when we met was: “I don’t normally look like this.” Sitting in a café in east London in a form-fitting purple dress and with a flurry of dark auburn hair, she looked a long way from the swamp in Zambia (she is fluent in the Bantu language Bemba) where she once lived for her research. Evans prefers to stay with local families on her trips.

It was while reading about economics in 2019 that Evans discovered “this big debate: how did the West get rich and democratic, while other countries like Pakistan or India are so much poorer? How did East Asia catch up?” She realised “we can ask exactly the same questions about gender”. Her book will be a broad study of why gender equality has developed differently across the world. Why, for example, given how patriarchal East Asia was 100 years ago, does it now have high levels of female employment, while in India and Pakistan it remains low? The answer, Evans believes, is the “honour/income trade-off”.

“East Asia was once really patriarchal: sons inherit the family land, they continue the lineage, they do the ancestor worship, and daughters marry out, so what’s the point in educating them?” Then, economic growth created opportunities for female employment: “Families were, like, hey, we can get rich.” In China, where Evans observed “really strong ideals of upward mobility”, women’s financial contribution was valued. By contrast, researchers in Mumbai found that when they offered women slum-dwellers $200 a month (in Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum, the average daily wage is $1.25) to work in an office with other women, “most say no, because men’s honour is contingent on female seclusion, and this is prioritised above income”.

The key difference between East Asia and India is religion. “Some societies are more materialistic than others, more concerned with meritocracy, believing in upward mobility in this life. That’s the distinctive thing about East Asia, they’re not that religious, they’re not that concerned about the afterlife. They want to succeed here and now.” But for Hindus or Muslims in India, “If your entire life is thinking the most important thing is paradise, you’re not necessarily focused on exploiting every single economic opportunity.”

In religious, conservative societies, Evans said, women are more heavily controlled. She pointed to the Islamic concept of dayouth, used to describe “a man who does not have proper sexual jealousy over his women folk. If a man lets his women be seen by other men, he is dayouth. That is shameful.” Across India she observed that “everyone wants to keep their daughters and wives in line for their respectability. Your inclusion in caste networks depends on policing your daughters. In countries… where everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, how can you diverge?”

Next, Alice Evans’s travels will take her to Washington to advise the World Bank on its gender strategy, then to Stanford, where she is a visiting fellow, and on to Colombia, Malaysia and Pakistan. “When I started this, no one thought it was possible. I study the history of every single society in the world, which is crazy, naive, ambitious… You have to be a kind of maniac to do it.”

[See also: Joseph Stiglitz: the UK’s tax system is “inexcusable”]

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