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Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow Molly M. King searches for the connection between knowledge and gender

Feb 28 2018

How much of what you know can be linked to your gender? Can your knowledge of a certain topic be attributed to your gender?

These are just some of the questions posed by PhD candidate and Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow Molly King.

For King, information is anything but perfect. Her dissertation research attempts to quantify what she perceives as a “gap” in access to knowledge. This gap represents an inequality that King has found is connected to one’s identity markers, including one’s race, gender, and economic class. By examining this inequality in information awareness, she is on the verge of a breakthrough conclusion about a correlation between an individual’s knowledge base and their gender.

It may seem unsurprising that people have unequal sets of knowledge—considering that knowledge is shaped by a person’s education and exposure to the world, as well as their lived, social experiences.

But King’s scholarship questions the logic behind these assumptions about knowledge differences through an analysis of what she calls “differential demographic patterns in knowledge” tied to gender, race, ethnicity, and class. She finds that not only does the knowledge one has reflect their position in society, their knowledge can function as a site of privilege. Not only does knowledge confer influence and power, but, given its connection to demographics, it also perpetuates limited thinking, based on the demographics of the social circles they participate in: Some people acknowledge that they do not know what they do not know, while others remain fiercely allegiant to the knowledge—false knowledge, also known today as “fake news”—they have access to based on their demographics.

In her study, King compiled and analyzed data from 48 nationally representative data sets from between the years 2005 and 2015. These data sets, from entities like the General Social Survey and Pew Research, tested knowledge on sixteen domains—fields or subjects—of knowledge, from foreign politics to religion, finance to pop culture. From her research, King concluded that there are significant gender differences in the average amount of knowledge between men and women: Men were found to be more knowledgeable in 62.5% of the tested subjects, including physical science, economics, foreign politics, and technology. Knowledge about the subjects of the life sciences and health were equally divided between men and women, while women dominated in knowledge of the social sciences.

This difference in quantified knowledge between men and women could quickly be read as confirmation of the sexist statement that men are smarter than women. But, for King, this data suggests a far deeper truth about gender inequality and the history of sexism when it comes to access to information resources. Specifically, this gender disparity in knowledge reveals how gender inequality relates to and is perpetuated by knowledge and access to knowledge. Knowledge is a criterion that can help to measure the quality of one’s life, and it is understood to be both a marker of social inequality and a potential contributor to future inequalities and access to resources.

Differences in access to knowledge have real life repercussions. The lack of opportunity to acquire information is potentially cyclical, an implication that King plans to examine further in her research. As suggested by her current findings, women have historically experienced less opportunities to acquire knowledge than men, so their lack of knowledge relative to men has a systemic cause. This lack of knowledge, in turn, may further deprive women of economic and material opportunities that require or prefer knowledge in certain fields. The systematic scarcity of knowledge amounts to unequal opportunities and power distribution. This assessment coincides with research recently published by King and her co-authors that shows men are overwhelmingly more inclined to cite themselves in academic work than women: "In the last two decades of data, men self-cited 70 percent more than women,” they write in the research abstract. “Women are also more than 10 percentage points more likely than men to not cite their own previous work at all.” Knowledge is insular, it circulates insularly, and it is gendered. Knowledge, thus, translates into a key player in defining the power dynamic amongst individuals.

And this power differential serves to shed light on the historical, structural depth of gender inequality. In King’s own words, “information truly is power; and who possesses it and wields it most effectively has profound consequences for inequality and human welfare.” Information inequality, or differences in knowledge, correlates to gender inequality. Researching the connection between the two, King hopes, will help move us to a more equal society.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.