November 7, 2016 | By Richard C. Eichenberg

Gender Difference in Foreign Policy Opinions: Implications for 2016


There are three patterns in American politics that take on special significance in 2016. The first is that voting in Presidential elections has been significantly divided by gender since 1980. The second is the collapse of support for Donald Trump among women voters, an apparent result of his many insulting comments directed at women, his own description of predatory behavior in a leaked video, and the charges of sexual assault that have been reported by numerous women. Third, a number of scholarly studies have shown a significant gender difference in citizen opinion on foreign policy issues, especially questions of war and peace, and there is growing discussion in the policy community about the inclusion of women in the policy process. The purpose of this post is to explore the extent of gender difference in the 2016 Chicago Council Survey of foreign policy opinions and to assess the relevance of any difference to this year’s presidential election.

Foreign Policy Goals

The Council’s survey presented respondents with a list of foreign policy goals and asked “whether you think that it should be a very important foreign policy goal of the United States, a somewhat important foreign policy goal, or not an important goal at all.” The table below shows the percentage of women and men who chose “very important” for each goal. There is a good deal of commonality in the rankings of women and men: all consider protecting American jobs and combating terrorism the most important, few consider “defending our allies security” a top priority, and most evoke a small gender difference. Nonetheless, there are some significant gender differences (shown in bold italics in the table). Perhaps most notable for the current election campaign, women are more likely to mention improving the global environment and limiting climate change, issues on which Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump differ. Perhaps not surprisingly, women are also more likely to name the promotion of women’s rights, an issue on which Secretary Clinton has long experience and one that she has emphasized in her campaign. Women are also more likely to emphasize the importance of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, although it is not clear which candidate is likely to benefit. For example, Mr. Trump has argued that the Iran nuclear agreement is flawed, while Secretary Clinton is happy to take credit for its completion and argues that it does indeed help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Threats and the Response to Threats

The Chicago Council Survey also presented respondents with a list of thirteen “possible threats” and asked respondents if each represented “a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an important threat at all.”  Upwards of 70 percent of respondents rated all thirteen as an “important” or “critical” threats, but gender difference on most of them are very small. There are a few exceptions. Women are more likely to name four issues as critical threats: the spread of nuclear weapons to unfriendly states, the North Korean nuclear program, international terrorism, and drug-related violence and instability in Mexico. In addition, a separate question concerning worries about becoming a victim of a terrorist attack yields one of the largest gender differences in the survey: 51 percent of women worry about becoming a victim to a terrorist attack, versus 37 percent of men (the same is true of worries about becoming a victim of gun violence).

Since Mr. Trump has taken a much more forceful stance on the question of fighting terrorism, one might speculate that this gender difference in worries about terrorism would give him an advantage with women voters. However, as Bethany Albertson, Joshua Busby and Shana Gadarian have pointed out, anxiety about a terrorist attack does not necessarily advantage the candidate with the more forceful policies. Rather, worried voters search for information about appropriate policies and seek leaders whose policies they trust. Moreover, the Chicago Council’s Dina Smelz analyzed the responses to the survey from before and after the terror attack in Orlando in June, 2016 and found no change in levels of support for the two candidates.

Additional questions in the Chicago survey make clear that women are not more likely than men to favor forceful policies. For example, although women are more concerned about violence and instability in Mexico,” they are slightly less likely to support expanding the wall and fencing on the border with Mexico (50% men support, versus 46% women). Further, women are not more likely to favor more forceful policies for dealing with terrorism. Both genders favor airstrikes or drone attacks against terrorists but shy away from the commitment of combat troops. However, there is one policy option that starkly divides the genders: the use of torture. The graphic below displays the percentage of women and men within each party who believe that the use of torture against suspected terrorists is always or mostly effective in combating terrorism. Clearly, partisanship is a major divide: Republicans of both genders are more likely to say that torture is effective. Nonetheless, there is a substantial gender difference among Republicans and (especially) Independents.

This is an issue on which the candidates have offered diametrically opposing positions: Mr. Trump has said emphatically that he favors the use of torture, while Secretary Clinton supports the ban on torture that has been in effect since the beginning of the Obama administration. The figures in the graphic suggest that his support for torture is a policy that is likely to further complicate Mr. Trump’s difficulties with Republican women and make it difficult to appeal to women who are Independents. 

Global Governance

Unlike prior presidential election campaigns, the election of 2016 has not focused attention on the role of international institutions in global governance. However, this is one topic where prior research on the role of international institutions in foreign policy have found gender differences in responses. The Chicago Council survey included a series of questions asking respondents about the effectiveness of various policy instruments for achieving foreign policy goals. Gender differences concerning the effectiveness of most policy instruments were very small, but there is one exception: strengthening the United Nations. As the graphic below shows, partisan differences on the UN are quite prominent, but as was the case on the question concerning torture, there is a clear gender divide among Independents and Republicans. Indeed, a majority of Independent and Republican women think that strengthening the United Nations would be effective, versus a minority of only 39 percent of Republican men. These figures suggest that support for the UN is a position that is likely to be attractive to women voters across the political spectrum.


Given the explosive nature of the revelations concerning Donald Trump’s treatment of women, it seems unlikely that gender difference on foreign policy issues will be uppermost in the minds of many voters. However, there are several conclusions that can be drawn about gender differences that appear in responses to the Chicago Council Survey. First, there are many issues on which gender difference is small to nonexistent. Second, contrary to much popular discussion, the issues of terrorism and immigration do not lead women to favor a more forceful policy response, despite the fact that women express higher concern about many threats. Indeed, where gender difference is present, it is always because women are less likely to favor forceful policies. Finally, opinions reveal that women are much more receptive to the argument that a stronger United Nations would be effective in achieving foreign policy goals.



The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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