and women today tend to think increasingly on the same lines. But at the
same time they insist on the right to be different. When young men stress
the importance of relationships it is neither the macho nor the New Man
who is their model, and when young women emphasize the importance of a
career, it is neither the mother with a double responsibility of looking
after the home and doing a (low-paid) job nor the elegant career woman
they are thinking of. On the contrary: parents are regarded as examples
to beware of. But on some issues the differences are still very great;
nuclear power is one such issue.
Table of contents
Young men and women increasingly share the same attitudes and the same basic values on many issues. This converging trend is gaining ground in a great many areas. This is proved by many recent studies, including an extensive survey of young people's values performed by the Institute for Futures Studies, The Nineties Report.
The importance of good health, meeting your friends, having someone to love and good family relationships are some of the major areas on which young people agree. Their views on work are also broadly similar; workmates, earning money, interesting and varied tasks, and job satisfaction come high on the list for both sexes. Nor are there any great differences as regards the future: 90 per cent are optimistic about the future and even more consider that they can influence their own future. Only 39 per cent, however, consider that they can influence Sweden's future. There are no great differences between the sexes here either. The answer to the question of who has the greatest influence in shaping the future is also virtually unanimous: politicians, the media and the large companies. When asked to describe where the greatest threats lie, there is the same consensus between young men and women: the environment, war and conflicts and over-population.
Environmental issues cut across all other issues. There is great environmental awareness, which is reflected in the will to save energy, develop alternatives and support global efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Here again there are no great differences between the sexes.
When it comes to nuclear power, however, there are conspicuous differences. In general, the majority think that the existing Swedish nuclear power plants should continue to produce electricity for the duration of their service life. But there are marked differences between the sexes, and when it comes to long-term perspectives the gap widens even more. A majority of young men - 60 per cent - are in favour of long-term use of nuclear power, while 80 per cent of women are against it. What is the explanation for these differences between the sexes?
The respondents give very different reasons for their answers even where they come to the same conclusions, and there is a sharp dividing-line between and women. Men who regard nuclear power as a good thing in the long term often mention the economic aspects, its value for Sweden and its safety. The environment is also an important argument for pro-nuclear men; they often compare nuclear power favourably with coal and oil. Pro-nuclear women often say that nuclear power is cheap and clean, while they do not mention the safety aspects at all. For women who are against nuclear power the safety aspects are the most important. They talk of "major disasters", "it is destructive and horrible", "terrible things can happen", "it is dangerous and devastating". Anti-nuclear men talk about "the problem of final disposal", and the risk of accidents, particularly in Eastern Europe.
As regards men, there are some differences between those with a theoretical education and those with a practical education. Those with a theoretical education are usually pro-nuclear. No such difference is apparent among women; their anti-nuclear stance is not affected by educational or professional factors. Could these great differences perhaps be explained in biological terms?
Biological reasons are often mentioned by the women in the survey: "you shouldn't tamper with the molecules", "we are generating waste that future generations will have to take care of, that's not right". The question of nuclear waste is mentioned as a problem by many more young women than men. 71 per cent of the men, but only 56 per cent of the women consider it acceptable to store the existing waste deep in the bedrock. 63 per cent of the men have no objection to the waste being stored in their own municipality as opposed to 34 per cent of the women.
The concepts nature and nurture are frequently used in some feminist circles. "Nature" relates to biology, and has "established" and "universal" connotations, while "nurture" relates to matters that are subject to social and cultural influence and thus more variable; nature is regarded as a female attribute and nurture as male. In recent years there have been lively discussions as to the relative importance of biological and social factors. In Women, Science and Popular Mythology Evelyn Fox Keller lists a number of opposites that taken together represent a sort of scientific paradigm. Here are some examples:
- Science is reason without reference to emotion, while women think in emotional terms.
- Natural science is concerned with things and women with people.
- Natural science is impersonal, while women are personal.
- There are two ways of acquiring knowledge: the male way, which consists in objective, analytical, scientific investigation and the female way, which is a process similar to a mother's intuitive knowledge about her child.
Fox Keller's point is that these opposites are false. They are basically myths. She claims that it is myths like these about "male" and "female" that have given rise to a simplistic view of science and often led to oversimplified models. My own experience as a researcher and member of society confirms this conclusion. Therefore, before we accept a simple explanation such as nature versus nurture, let us try to find other plausible explanations for the great differences that exist between women and men in their views on nuclear power.
It is not simply that women are basically against and men are for. Closer investigation reveals that women's attitudes to nuclear power are at least as complex as men's. There is, for example, a marked difference between the long and the short perspective.
When we ask the question that is exercising Sweden at the moment: "Is it realistic to abolish nuclear power by the year 2010?", the differences between men's and women's responses are not very great: 85 per cent of male and 76 per cent of female respondents do not regard this as realistic. The differences between the sexes are very small with regard to several questions of immediate significance; both men and women regard Swedish nuclear power as safer than that produced in other countries. They also think that we should support nuclear safety in other countries. There are no substantial differences between men and women here (92 and 95%, respectively). Both sexes therefore make a distinction between the present and the future. They also make a distinction between Sweden and the rest of the world.
However, the differences are very substantial when it comes to the need for research on nuclear power: nine out of ten men think we should do such research, while only just over half the women think so. We also asked whether they considered they knew enough about energy issues. 30 per cent of the men consider that they do, while less than one per cent of the women think so. In response to the next question: "Do you consider that you know enough to be able to take a stand on nuclear power?" 74 per cent of the men said yes, while only 21 per cent of the women did so. This discrepancy was confirmed when we asked the respondents to give reasons for their answers. The women stated that they didn't really know so much about it: "don't know a lot about it, difficult question," was a frequent comment. The differences might also be interpreted as meaning that are women emotionally aware that these issues are difficult, and this deters them from learning more about the subject.
It is a well-known fact that men often regard themselves as knowledgeable and competent, while women tend to underrate their own ability. To establish whether the differences in their perception of their knowledge are subjective, or whether such differences actually exist, a knowledge test was prepared. A number of questions in two different areas - a technical understanding of everyday objects and environmental issues - were formulated by the youth team that was involved with the Nineties Report. This test was then used on 2,300 people of varying ages. The two main questions we wanted to find answers to were: Are there sex- and age-related differences? Can differences be related to educational and professional background?
The survey revealed striking differences between the sexes. When it came to understanding how a microwave oven, a refrigerator and a petrol engine work, the differences were very great regardless of age. Three out of four young women had little or no knowledge of the functioning of these appliances. The young men knew considerably more; only one out of four men had little or no knowledge of the operation of a car engine, for example. The differences between the various age groups were much smaller than those between the sexes. Those born in the 1940s and 1950s performed best. As regards environmental matters, the young men appeared to know more about this subject too. The respondents were asked to describe photosynthesis, ecocycles and the greenhouse effect. But the differences between the sexes were not as great as for technical appliances. The younger and better-educated respondents knew much more about environmental matters. However, there was one question where there were no differences at all between the sexes and that was a basic knowledge of composting and sorting at source: how it is done, what needs to be sorted and how. Here there were no differences in knowledge due to age, sex, profession or educational background.
One conclusion that may be drawn from this survey is that the education given in this area basically caters for men rather than women. The differences in knowledge probably help to explain the differences in attitudes to nuclear power just as much as biological factors.
Another explanation, which complements the first one, has to do with the process and timing of changing values. According to the researcher Ronald Inglehart, the development of men and women is not parallel; women "lag behind".
The theory of the silent revolution has played a large part in shaping our view of how values change. The idea of stable differences between generations is at the core of the theory. The silent revolution consists in a slow change from the industrial society's appreciation of safety and security to the post-material society's emphasis on personal liberty. This trend is largely explained by the development of the welfare state and improvements in education. The younger generation has greater citizen competence and places a high value on the individual's realization of his potential. Relationships and work are top priority. There is of course scope for change, particularly in times of crisis; "short-term periodical effects" occur in parallel with the lasting differences between the generations.
Inglehart bases his research on studies performed in many different countries and notes that the further a country has advanced in societal development, the more people tend to espouse post-material values; the process has, so to speak, started earlier. In some countries, for example Japan, this has happened quite recently, and the theory provides an interesting backdrop to developments, in particular, in southeast Asia.
According to Inglehart, a pattern can be detected. Women lag behind, they have the same values as older men, i.e. more material ones. "The prewar cohort lag two decades behind the men; the postwar cohort is only one decade behind. In the United States these differences disappear among the youngest cohorts." Thus, among young people of today there are no differences between the sexes. These conclusions are also consistent with the studies carried out in Sweden. In the most recent studies more women than men espouse post-material values. This might be taken to mean that women have less vested interests, less to gain from established society and more to gain by change. These processes have of course long-term implications for the question of production and reproduction and the approach to environmental and energy issues.
This may also help to explain the differences in views on nuclear power. Men have a greater understanding of technology, industry, the economy and industry through their everyday work. Only recently have women really come into contact with these aspects in the same way as men. We have previously been in separate arenas. Women and men thus have different points of departure in their discussions of nuclear power, they have different frames of reference although they answer the same questions.
The "freeze" of the nuclear issue
Why is there such a differ between the long- and the short-term views of the respondents? One theory is that this question has been monopolized by their parents' generation. As a result of the referendum in 1980 the issue was "frozen" at the same time as few people actually realized what the result meant. Therefore, young people have not felt responsible, the political establishment has "taken over" the issue. This applies in particular to young women, who have not bothered to find out more or to take part in the political debate on this particular issue. But now they want to have their say. Such a long time has passed that the politicians have missed their chance. The last two decades have shown that phasing out nuclear power and development are not compatible in the short term. There is no difference between the sexes as regards this conclusion. Either substantial efforts must be made to find viable alternatives or it is back to square one: a new referendum.
The Nineties Report
Every generation has its own set of values, and they determine people's attitudes to the environment. There is a risk that we see young people of today through the spectacles of the past and fail to perceive the distinctive features of the 1990s.
The environment is an important part of young people's lives and future outlook. It is a well-known truism that young people today are the opinion-formers of tomorrow, and that tomorrow is rushing towards us faster than ever. From the point of view of the young this is a reality, but does the older generation - those who make the decisions - realize this? The potential benefits of understanding these processes are great and the potential drawbacks of failing to understand are even greater. At stake are the political options for future energy policy and the need to get the political priorities right in this area in order to orchestrate a real paradigm shift from a traditional industrial society to something new. The conclusion must be that harnessing energy is as crucial to such a transition as it was to the transition to an industrial society.
Many young people in the 1990s feel quite comfortable with technology and development and experience no resistance to or exaggerated fear of them. Their familiarity with the gigantic flows of data on which the information society is based has qualified them for a role as world citizens, although they sometimes lack specialized knowledge and experience. Consequently, they have an open, unbiased attitude, a new sort of creativity which can also be useful in addressing environmental issues.
One thing that young people born in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have in common is that, despite their acceptance of the values of an industrial society, they are prepared to forgo an energy-consuming lifestyle in the interests of a sustainable environment. But in the post-industrial information society the young of today are captives to their own energy needs and should therefore strive for a realistic solution to the problem of energy supply. However, they must be given the chance to play their part in achieving this solution while remaining true to their own values; this applies to women in particular.
To interpret the obvious differences in values that exist between young men and women is a challenge that must be faced by today's politicians in a spirit of responsibility. Do they have the courage to do this?
©2003 Bi Puranen