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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

gender gap

(1980’s | journalese | “men are men, women are women,” “battle of the sexes”)

I would like to know what the first gap was. Cumberland, maybe. Back in the late fifties, there was much talk of a “missile gap.” It meant the Russkies had more nuclear bombs than we did, so we had to put a man on the moon. Maybe that’s not exactly how it went, but the Cold War produced its share of rapid technological advance, by fair means or foul. The sixties brought us the generation gap, still perhaps the grandaddy of all schisms, which rived the nation and caused teenagers and young adults to turn against their parents, a phenomenon absolutely unprecedented in human history. Not having done proper research, I don’t know if “missile gap” was the wellspring or merely the latest in the great chain of gaps, stretching back to the primal form and light gap before the Lord breathed upon the waters.

If “generation gap” didn’t win the mantle, “gender gap” has. The phrase was absorbed effortlessly into the lexicon in the early 1980’s (only a few uses are to be found earlier in Google Books, none in LexisNexis). It has had successors, of course. The credibility gap, denoting citizens’ distrust of the government (the name is no longer used, but the phenomenon grows more imposing every year). The achievement gap, between well-off white or Asian students and everyone else. The wealth gap (sometimes cast less usefully as the income gap) has certainly come into its own in the last thirty years, as the concentration of wealth has reached historic levels. There does not seem to be a snappy, generally used word for the difference between those with high-speed internet access and those without (the gender gap in computer use generally has been a topic of conversation for at least fifteen years). In two minutes on Google, I found “connectivity gap,” “broadband gap,” and, most prosaically, “internet access gap.” Not a bunch of household words there. Over time, some gaps have caught on (and held on) better than others, but it’s hard to think of one that rolls off the tongue as easily or as often as “gender gap.”

This is another expression we owe to the early Reagan years, when a number of idioms, inside and outside government, took flight (“zero tolerance,” “sticker shock,” “truly needy,” “safety net”). “Gender gap” got a big workout during the 1982 midterm elections, when pollsters noticed that women expressed disapproval of Reagan’s policies at consistently higher rates than men. The gap turned out to be wider in pre-election polls than in post-election results, and strategists soon realized that it had more bark than bite. Early on, the phrase turned up most often (by far) in political discourse. It remains a staple there, but it has conquered many other contexts as well. Even in the early eighties, I found instances of “gender gap” used to talk about differences in wages between men and women (equal pay for equal work), or communication style (ten years before “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus”), or college enrollment (right around the time women began to outnumber men in the undergraduate population). The net has only widened since then. It can come up in discussions of scholastic achievement, aptitude, rank (percentage of women in executive positions), representation (in social convention as well as in government), preferences, style, and recreation, to name a few. So many différences to vive!

We will probably never stop arguing about how men and women are alike, how they differ, how we know, and how valuable such generalizations are in the first place. Here we have a handy term for all the divergences we know are there, whether studies and statistics bear them out or not. Actually, it seems to me that “gender gap” still sounds most comfortable in statistical contexts, but it is used to talk about the intangible, too. Its spread has not been contained yet, and it no doubt will continue to insinuate itself into more and more kinds of discourse.


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