The vaccine gender gap
Why do so many women say they won't get a Covid vaccine?
My children are fully vaccinated
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Here’s a startling graphic that’s making the rounds today:
Men, it seems, are significantly more likely than women to say that they are very likely or somewhat likely to get the Covid-19 vaccine. While 69% of men say they are likely to get the vaccine, just 51% of women say the same (the poll says it has a 3% margin of error). This gender gap is striking, and odd. After all, we know that people who are politically liberal tend to have more positive views of vaccines and mandatory vaccine laws than people who are conservative, and women tend to be more liberal than men. We know that women are more likely than men to go to the doctor and to seek out preventative care. We know that women are more likely than men to comply with a doctor’s orders. And we know that women are more likely than men to adhere to public health guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19, including wearing masks, physically distancing, and maintaining good hygiene.
So what explains women’s vaccine reticence?
The truth is that none of us really know yet, but the most popular theory seems to be the typical anti-vaxxer bogeyman: “Wellness.” Affluent yoga moms taken in by GOOP gateway drugs soon escalated their anti-science views, becoming proto Jenny McCarthys claiming that childhood inoculations cause autism and a life without sunscreen and “earthing” is all a kid needs to stay healthy (let your kids “earth” away, but oh my god please wear sunscreen). Of course these same women in $100 athleisure are the ones who think they can essential oil their way out of coronavirus.
I’m… not so sure it’s that simple.
First, what might be an embarrassing truth: If Donald Trump had pushed through a vaccine before the election, I would have been very hesitant to take it. I am not anti-vaccine; I get a flu shot every year, and if I had a kid, I would fully vaccinate them. But I also deeply, deeply distrust this current president, to the extent that I do not trust he wouldn’t rush out a vaccine if he thought it would politically benefit him. So I understand, to some extent, the degree to which political ideology and experience can shape one’s views of public health. I think my skepticism is legitimate and evidence-based, but there it is. (That said, I would get the vaccine that is being rolled out now).
One reason I suspect we’re seeing a gender gap here is that a whole lot of women have personally experienced or heard about supposedly great innovations in women’s health that, oops, turned out to be really really bad: Thalidomide; the Dalkon Shield; transvaginal mesh; the list of products marketed to women as “safe” that turned out to be anything but is troublingly long. I know that when I go to the doctor for contraception, I’m hesitant to use the newest kind — there have just been too many contraceptive lawsuits and too many stories of women promised safety only to wind up physically debilitated. Maybe that makes me anti-science; I think it makes me, and lots of other women who behave similarly, cautious with our own bodies.
There aren’t nearly as many similar stories that apply to men as a broad group, and this history is not at the front of men’s minds when they go to the doctor (which is also not very often). I would bet that most American men couldn’t even tell you what a Dalkon Shield was. So it makes sense that men would be less skeptical of fast-tracked medical innovations — they haven’t been hurt by them.
That is, except for Black men, who are also skeptical of the Covid-19 vaccine (Black women are, too). As of November, Black Americans were far less likely than any other group to say they intend to get a Covid vaccine. With the history of government-sponsored medical experimentation on Black people, is it really any surprise that there’s deep distrust there?
To be clear, I am sure that the uptick in anti-vaccination activism and misinformation is part of what is fueling women’s skepticism of the Covid-19 vaccine. And it seems clear enough that women are, if not the overwhelming majority of anti-vaxxers, certainly the loudest and most visible of them. But I also suspect that the perception of anti-vaxxers as affluent college-educated white women living in liberal areas is less about who anti-vaxxesr actually are, and more about who journalists and pundits have in their broader circles — and who is more likely to foster resentment and feel ripe for mockery from those same journalists and pundits.
There may also be a gap between people who wouldn’t get a Covid vaccine and people who refuse to vaccinate their kids. People who do not think it’s important to vaccinate their children are much more likely to be conservative than liberal. And those who do not have a college degree are less receptive to vaccination than those who do — when it comes to the Covid vaccine, 83% of people with a postgraduate degree said they were likely to get it, and so did 74% of people with an undergraduate degree; by comparison, just 52% of people without a college degree said they were likely to get vaccinated. There’s an education gap in believing Covid is even a real threat; it makes sense that gap would persist when you ask people whether they would get vaccinated to prevent it.
Some fairly limited studies have found that in Texas and California, people who exempt their children from mandatory vaccinations are more likely to live in affluent white communities. But that doesn’t necessarily tell us who is anti-vaccine; it tells who, among anti-vaxxers, is best able to work the system to get what they want. While there are certainly pockets of white liberals who send their unvaccinated kids of Waldorf schools, anti-vaccination views in 2020 seem to be much more tied to right-wing conspiracy theorizing and anti-government sentiment than to “wellness” or a crunchy-hippie view of the world. Which doesn’t mean there’s no anti-vaccination views in wellness spaces; there absolutely are. I just suspect that’s not what is primarily fueling the current Covid vaccine skepticism, or even anti-childhood-inoculation propagandizing.
Like other bastions of Republican support, I would guess that the loudest and most effective anti-vaxxers have found their sweet spot in white families who are affluent but not highly -educated, and living in relatively homogeneous communities; and among the same women targeted by MLMs: those who believe in traditional gender roles and are in traditional marriages, and are seeking a socially sanctioned route to independence. Anti-vaccination misinformation circulates via Facebook much the same way QAnon conspiracy theories do: With the promise that there’s something here, you just have to do your own research and you’ll see for yourself. The suggestion is that all of these people are in on a secret that you, if you’re smart enough, will soon pick up on, too. If you’ve been primed for both distrust of experts and adherence to invisible authority — certainly themes you might hear at any Evangelical church service on any given Sunday — this might all make sense.
When it comes to vaccinations, this is all magnified for women. After all, in a traditional family arrangement, mom isn’t just the primary caretaker for the kids — the kids are the only people she has authority over, and her only area of expertise. This idea that as a mother, you know best seems more likely to resonate with women who are told that motherhood is their highest ideal, and that there is not much else they really know at all.
Women, conservative or liberal, are also the ones largely making their children’s medical decisions, which means they’ve probably thought about vaccinations more than men have — they’ve Googled around and read up on it, and probably come across heaps of misinformation. And this has a cascading effect, as female-dominated social media groups in turn seem more likely to have users who bring anti-vaccine misinformation into wholly unrelated conversations.
It’s not that women are dumber or more easily manipulated by snake-oil salesmen than men are — after all, Joe Rogan has a much wider reach than Gwyneth Paltrow, and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States with a huge gender gap. And it’s not that female-dominated “wellness” spaces are uniquely full of bad information — see, e.g., Rogan’s podcast, and all of the supplements conspiracy-mongers like Alex Jones hawk on their shows. It is that women are more likely to be in charge of kids, and kids are the people who get the overwhelming majority of vaccinations in the United States.
The Covid-19 vaccine is the rare one that is being given to adults. So we may be seeing several forces collide in the Covid vaccine gender gap: The anti-vaccine creep that has now spread even to women who don’t have kids or whose kids are older; the proliferation of right-wing conspiracy theories generally which ostensibly pulls in some number of men and women alike; and the female skepticism not of medicine, but of being medical guinea pigs, having seen the many ways in which that has gone wrong for us.
As the Covid-19 vaccine actually rolls out and more people get it, we’ll hopefully see resistance to it decrease. But in the meantime, public health officials (and reporters, commentators, and the general public) might be more effective if they addressed the legitimate fears and concerns about a brand-new fast-tracked vaccine, rather than writing people off as anti-science morons if they express fear or skepticism about getting vaccinated. If your goal is self-righteousness, then go all-in on calling people idiots and mocking them. But if it’s higher vaccination rates and a healthier society, well, it’s probably worth figuring out why so many people — and so many women and Black people in particular — are hesitant, and meeting them where they’re at.