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A don't-know state of mind

BACK in the spring, a few friends and I started talking about holding some kind of coffee morning for women undecideds.

Even then, the female vote was known to be a key independence referendum battleground, with polls consistently showing that women were less likely than men to have made up their mind, and that those who had were less likely to intend voting Yes. But none of that was foremost in my mind. Rather, it was one of those school-gate ideas that came out of women chatting together. It seemed to us that there were so many maybes, sort-ofs and uncertains around our Leith neighbourhood that it was worth having a little discussion with some Yes and No campaigners.

At first, the idea was modest: perhaps a cup of tea in someone's front room. But when one friend who was leaning towards Yes asked Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to join the talk, we decided to turn it into a larger event in South Leith Parish Halls, with No-campaigning MSP Kezia Dugdale on the panel. But the idea remained that it would be for women undecideds only.

That event takes place this Wednesday, in, as it turns out, the week following a flurry of surveys and stories about the persistence of the gap between male and female voting intentions. Of course, some men have asked if they can come along and I've had to say no. And in doing so I've been forced to examine why it is I think it's valuable to host a debate solely for women.

Why? Simply because that gender gap remains stubbornly there, in spite of efforts by the Yes campaign to woo women. Different surveys tell us different stories about how big it is: 43 % of men say they will vote Yes, against 31% of women, according to the Social Attitudes Survey published last week. The Economic And Social Research Council (ESRC) report, Risk Uncertainty And Vote Choice In The Scottish Referendum, found only a 10% difference, with women polling at 33% Yes. Either way, it was a gap that wasn't closing. Women remain less likely to vote Yes than men; they also remain more likely to be undecided.

Rachel Ormston, co-director of ScotCen Social Research and one of the authors of the recent Social Attitudes Survey, says: "In the final weeks of the campaign, capturing women's votes remains a key challenge, particularly for the Yes campaign.

"Put off by uncertainty and less likely to be persuaded by patriotic arguments around 'pride', women still need to be convinced that independence will deliver on the economy and other areas."

One of the things that separates the genders, then, is certainty. Those who say they will vote Yes or No tend to be sure they know what independence will bring, whether that be, for instance, the pound as currency or no pound. Uncertainty is associated with the undecided, and that uncertainty is more common among the women polled. Risk aversion is another such seemingly female characteristic thrown up by the surveys - undecideds are more likely to be risk-averse. How you interpret these associations depends on your point of view, or possibly your gender.

I am one of these uncertain people. Blogger Kate Higgins ("A Burdz Eye View") has theorised that women may be more undecided because they feel the need to "do the right thing". I feel burdened by that: the need, with my one little vote, to get it right for myself, my children, my community, Scotland, the north of England I was raised in, and the world. But I'm sure a lot of men feel that too. I hope through chairing next week's event, I'll become more certain, but also suspect I probably will not.

Some portray the uncertain among us in a flattering manner. Sturgeon talks to me about women being "risk-aware" rather than "risk-averse". She says: "A lot of women are in primary caring roles, for children, for elderly relatives, and therefore I think there is a tendency and truth in the fact that they look very carefully at the practical implications of how they vote."

She believes from her own experience "going around the country, talking to folk and chapping on doors" that the gender gap is closing and that "it's not that women are more likely to vote No, it's that, understandably, they are just taking their time before reaching a final conclusion". These women, she notes, have almost "a different timeline of decision-making". Some men, she adds, also do.

But not everyone is as complimentary. Back in 2012, polling expert Professor John Curtice proposed an interpretation of the gender gap, saying that perhaps "the rhetoric of the Yes camp" was one that resonated more with "the hunter-gatherer" and that "maybe as a result this means its message appeals to fewer women than to their male, more macho counterparts". Today he is more measured, saying that how one sees it depends on one's ideology.

He says: "You could say women are being more rational, they are simply saying that the future is difficult to predict, they are taking time to make their mind up. Or you could say that women are more risk-averse, uncertainty is a potential source of risk and that women are less willing to take the risk."

Either way the gender gap is persistent across all age groups. According to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, it even exists amongst the 14- to 17-year-olds. Jan Eichhorn, who analysed the voting intentions of different age groups for the Social Attitudes Survey, believes this is to do with gender socialisation. "When 14- to 17-year-old boys are asked things like, 'Do you have enough information?' or 'Do you understand politics?', they are more likely already to say, 'Yes, sure, I understand everything'." But she adds: "It makes more sense to flip it, to say maybe it's not women who are overplaying their indecision, it's maybe men not being comfortable enough to say, 'I don't know'. It's as if the pressure is already on boys, from their schools and families, to have a firm view."

Surveys, of course, are never very nuanced. Their range of questioning is always going to be limited; and perhaps there is something we miss when we rely on their figures to tell us that women are merely less attracted to risk, or that what concerns women is no different from what concerns men. Rachel Ormston notes from her research that the most significant factor influencing voting intentions "is what you think will happen in the economy. And that's the case for both men and women. It's not like women are considering radically different issues. It's not that they're more concerned about equality. The economy is most important for women and men."

Could women be feeling shut off from the debate? Might not this gender gap actually be there partly because of some failure to present a vision of Scotland that makes women feel a part of it and connected to it?

No campaigner Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish Secretary, believes that this is the case, and that this has been a failure on the part of the SNP. "They understood the need to reach out to women … And they haven't made that impact despite having a female [deputy] leader in Nicola Sturgeon. You begin to ask yourself why that is. I think part of the explanation is that just one female leader [Sturgeon] at the top is never enough, and that there are female-friendly policies and processes which should have been there for a longer time."

Meanwhile, some Yes campaigners agree that not enough attempt has been made to fully engage women. Independence activists Cat Boyd and Jenny Morrison have just published a book, Scottish Independence: A Feminist Response, outlining what they felt had been missing in the debate so far: a well-argued feminist case for independence. And they are not alone in feeling that the Yes campaign should have offered a more developed vision for women in an independent Scotland.

Former MSP Carolyn Leckie was one of the founders of Women For Independence, a grassroots organisation created in 2012 that has grown to encompass 40 different groups. Leckie describes it as "a campaign of real women in their communities", rather than a "top-down" or media-generated campaign. Her belief is that "women need to see women represented within the debate, and if they don't, it does look like politics as usual. The independence campaign, like any campaign in politics, will end up being dominated by men, unless they create spaces for women to make sure they come through".

She thinks one of the reasons why women seem less engaged with independence has to do with entitlement. "Women are influenced by the society they live in, which privileges men and doesn't privilege them. And I do think that men are probably more likely to feel entitled to live in a country where they have control and get the government they vote for."

There is still some time left for the Yes campaign to close the gap, though there is limited evidence that this is happening. But how to persuade those undecided women? Ormston says her research suggests the route is not through national pride. And Sturgeon argues something similar to this, saying that there may well be a difference in how women approach the debate, and how they interact with it and feel about it.

She says: "I think women are far less likely to be moved by the big symbols of statehood that are associated with the debate about independence: flags and embassies. I would include myself in that. I'd be more likely to be moved by debates around what difference is this going to make to my quality of life, and those around me."

Sturgeon notes that in the run-up to last Holyrood election, significantly fewer women than men seemed inclined to vote SNP - but that gap narrowed progressively, "until by the time we got to polling day it had virtually disappeared". She can, perhaps, find hope in the recent research from the ESRC which shows that, when the attitudes of the undecideds are further analysed, many more are more inclined towards Yes than No. As report author Professor Ailsa Henderson puts it: "We looked at people who said they were undecided, then questioned them on their degree of feeling, using a 10-point scale, and found they were tending more towards the Yes, by two to one." However this is only a glimmer of hope. Henderson's research suggests that these Yes-inclined undecideds will not turn out. "They're not even likely to go to the polls," she says.

Henderson, a Canadian, has previously researched voting and polling patterns in the Quebec referendums. Here, too, there was a persistent gender gap, with women less likely to vote Yes. A number of theories were thought up to explain this, she says. One was that they were less proud to be Quebecers, but that turned out not to be true. Rather, what was relevant was that old issue of risk. "General risk tolerance," she says, "is related to support for Yes. If you're just more willing to take risks in general about your life, then you're more likely to engage and more likely to support change." Their research also found that women were more likely to be in particular roles, caring for children in primary education, or for elderly relatives, and therefore more likely to be in "close contact with public services that were likely to bear the brunt of any constitutional change". In other words, for them the risk associated with independence seemed greater.

This is a time of countless debates; a glut of information and voices. What difference do I imagine that one more, women-only debate will make? Of course, I hope that at least some undecideds will leave decided; those who are uncertain will leave just a little more sure; and that perhaps the debate will have a different tone from many that we see in the media. But, for me this is also about community, about women taking part. Even the undecideds.

Women - Undecided About The Referendum? is at South Leith Church Halls, Leith at 6.45pm on Wednesday

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