There is a familiar narrative about the difference between men and women’s political preferences. The story goes that men and women want different things – that men like strong, tough leaders, whereas women are put off by the aggression of prime minister’s questions, and prefer their politicians friendly and personable. Men worry about the economy and foreign policy, while women are focused on health and education.
This picture (while not a very progressive representation of gender stereotypes) is often leapt upon by Labour supporters, as it seems to indicate that women are more likely to be left-leaning, stoking fears among Conservatives that they have a ‘women problem’.
While it is true that some polls currently show that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives is higher amongst women than among men, as Michael Ashcroft has recently demonstrated the issue is not that women specifically dislike the Conservatives, it is that of those who are ‘not Conservative’, men are slightly more likely to go to the United Kingdom Independence party whereas women are more likely to go to Labour.
While the Venus-Mars image of political preferences has some elements of truth to it – women do more frequently select the NHS as a major concern facing the country than men, and men are more likely to be worried about defence or Europe than women – most of these distinctions are frequently overstated.
What is really striking about the male-female columns on polling data tables is how similar they are.
Given the different challenges that women face – being paid less than men, being more likely to work part-time or not at all, taking on the responsibility for the bulk of childcare and household duties, to name but a few – it is remarkable that what they ask of politicians is so similar to men.
On the big issues that decide elections – the economy, jobs, immigration – men and women are in agreement. The drivers of male and female voters’ support for one party over another are consistent – unsurprisingly, we all want a party that ‘shares my values’, is ‘on the side of people like me’, and is led by someone that we have a positive view of.
The real difference that appears in how men and women approach politics is not what we say we want but how readily we claim an opinion. Across political polling, the most consistent difference between men and women is how much more frequently women say that they do not know the answers. Just looking at some of the published polling this week, this holds true across a range of different topics.
Women are nine points less likely to state an opinion on whether they ‘approve or disapprove of the government’s record to date’ (YouGov) and 11 points more likely to say they do not know who they would vote for if there were a general election tomorrow (Populus). Women are 11 points less likely to say they know whether trade unions have too much influence over the Labour party (ComRes), and Scottish women are eight points less likely to say they have decided how they will vote in the independence referendum (Survation). On the question of how the British government has handled the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, women are 19 points more likely to say they do not know.
BritainThinks’ polling of teenagers suggests that this trend is not going to disappear among the next cohort of adult women. When we asked 14-16-year-olds how they see politics fitting into their futures, girls were 17 points more likely than boys to say they do not know which political party understands their aspirations, and 21 points more likely not to know which party leader best understands them.
Of course there is a question of whether women and girls actually have fewer opinions on politics, or are just less ready to claim opinions than their male counterparts. However, it is clear that there is where the real gender gap in politics lies.
Zoe Tyndall is research lead at BritainThinks. She tweets @zoetyndall
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