So, a risible piece in the Telegraph from Cathy Newman, the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey focusing on the gender gap in voting intentions in the referendum and a keynote speech by Margaret Curran to women in the Better Together campaign today. Hmm, am I the only one to doubt that serendipity is at work here?
This, then, is a blog in three posts and firstly, let’s have some fun dismantling not just Cathy Newman’s meanderings but also Professor John Curtice’s frankly offensive stereotyping of how women think and behave as voters.
If you missed it, the Telegraph piece is here, out before the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in which Professor Curtice is involved. Setting that aside for this post, I spent a frustrating evening trawling What Scotland Thinks? disaggregating findings from previous surveys along gender lines. And the lesson? Pretty websites do not make for easy analysis. But also, sometimes it pays for academics to heed their own research.
However, perseverance pays off, as there are some interesting findings on the key constitutional questions asked over the years as part of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, especially when you compare women’s responses to those of men.
For example, women are equally in favour of independence as men even if it makes no difference to living standards. More women than men think Scotland’s economy would be a little better off with independence or that it would make no difference. Both genders favour taxation powers being given to the Scottish Parliament and women are more in favour of Holyrood making decisions about defence as well as welfare. Beyond the devo-max option then. And here’s something radical – more women than men favour welfare being devolved to local councils.
So for John Curtice to suggest that women are more pessimistic about the economic consequences of independence – as he does in the Telegraph article – is just wrong. They might be less confident about independence and somewhat worried about its impact but that’s different. Are they risk averse? Not on this evidence which suggests that women are keen on exploring a range of innovative options for delivering powers, services and resources in Scotland.
What then of Professor Curtice’s statement that “gender of candidates makes very little difference in elections”? Sorry, wrong again, even just from my personal experience. I know that the votes of women helped me to be elected as a councillor, including those of women who had never voted before, because they felt they had a candidate who reflected their interests and needs. This “role model effect” – that more women in politics might suggest to women that their interests will be better represented – was shown to exist in a US study in 2001* which found that women candidates/representation have a positive effect on women’s participation at a mass level. They boost women’s interest, knowledge and sense of political efficacy. And while a more recent study did not find links to increased participation, comparing findings across a number of countries showed that when you have more women in Parliament, both men and women are more likely to have positive political attitudes. Finally, research for the Electoral Commission into the 2001 UK General Election found that female turnout to vote was higher than men’s in seats where women were elected. This study also found that participation more widely can be affected by gender: women were less likely to campaign/volunteer in seats with a male MP compared to in seats with a woman. And it’s an international trend: countries with higher numbers of female Parliamentarians tend to have less of an activism gap between men and women in politics.
Professor Curtice has form with these lazy assertions – he made them two years ago. Professor Fiona MacKay suggested then that Curtice missed an opportunity to think about more plausible explanations for women’s uncertainty in their attitudes to independence than simply that they were “feart” and “deficient men”. Sadly, it is an opportunity he continues to miss and it is a shame that Cathy Newman approached him for an opinion, rather than Professor Mackay or indeed Dr Meryl Kenny, who both happen to be experts in this field.
You’d think that the woman who does Channel 4 News’s Fact Check blog might have checked more than one referendum poll to get a proper sense of women’s voting intentions. Leaving aside the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings, the trend in polling across the last six months suggests the gender gap – which admittedly is still, stubbornly there – is closing. And all the companies also agree that more women are still undecided on how to vote.
That is a good thing, not a weakness. Women want more information on independence and what it means for them, their families and their communities. On this, I agree with Margaret Curran and actually, would also concur that the Yes campaign needs to do more to get its message across to women.
For independence offers clear benefits to women – a living wage; better pensions; a written constitution to improve representation and enshrine equality. This last, in one step, would improve women’s lives. It’s no coincidence that in small independent countries like Finland and Denmark, women are more satisfied with life and think it is fairer for them. By contrast, Westminster isn’t working for women in Scotland – they still earn 12% less than men; they’ve been punished on state pensions for taking time off work to raise children; and of the £14 billion austerity cuts, nearly three quarters have hammered women and children. Margaret Curran suggests the childcare offer is “piffling”; Scotland’s women disagree with 29% of them thinking childcare would improve with independence.
I know from months now of engaging women voters, through the wonder that is Women for Independence – (subtitled “how to reach the other, really important parts of the population effectively on a shoestring”) – that when the choice is presented between a fresh start towards a fairer, more equal society or things getting worse for them under the current system, they get it. They also get that this vote is not about Alex Salmond or any party but about them, their lives and their future. Those undecideds shift to voting yes, quite readily in fact.
And if you consider those research findings again, that women participating in politics act as a role model to encourage other women’s participation, you can see who might be “feart” and why. Women for Independence’s experience has been exactly that. By offering a visible space for women to get involved in the referendum, we’ve attracted women who have never before done this kind of thing. Every week, new women join us and are willingly throwing themselves into the fray, empowered and enabled. It’s joyous.
Which is why this is wimmin’s week in the referendum and why there has been an onslaught of information and myth peddling to stop the flow of women to yes and perhaps also, to stymie women’s participation in this campaign at all levels. Not least that it’s all to do with Alex Salmond…
Women for Independence is buoyed rather than cowed by all this activity. They’re panicking, we’re not. And in the last weeks of the campaign, we’ll continue to do what we set out from the start: to listen to women rather than shout at them; to treat them and their views with respect rather than misrepresent them; to consider them not as a homogenous group but as individuals with valid concerns; to give them information to enable them to make their own minds up, rather than trying to do it for them.
It’s disappointing that Professor Curtice and indeed, Cathy Newman can’t do the same.
*References available on request