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Women aren't risk averse or fickle ... just busy fighting for survival

THE travails of womankind are many, but being told how you think by Alistair Carmichael must count as a new one.

When Brian Wilson chips in, there are probably twice as many agony uncles open for business as most women could need or want.

The boys, being boys, are not daunted. Asked during a BBC debate last week about women's attitudes towards the referendum, one offered a gender analysis based on things he had heard on doorsteps. The other drew on wide experience of patter and why it fails.

This last was an echo, unconscious no doubt, of wisdom offered by John Lamont, chief whip for the Scottish Conservatives. Last weekend he observed: "Alex Salmond knows he has a problem appealing to half of the electorate, but women can spot a dodgy chat-up line when they hear it." So 52% of voters can stop worrying their heads over politics. It's just like being propositioned.

Talking on the BBC, the Scottish Secretary said women "in particular are saying, 'Well, what will this mean for me, for my household budget, for my children'." The former Labour minister judged that women "are better at recognising bluff, bluster and bad patter". The consensus, crudely, was that in such matters the 52% are ruled by their "heads", not their "hearts".

Quite what that means, if it means anything, is not clear. What is clear is the persistence, in poll after poll, of a divergence in voting intentions between women and men. In most surveys a modest majority - if that - among the latter seem prepared to stand by the Union. The former, on the other hand, are decidedly unimpressed by independence.

A Survation poll for the Daily Record earlier this month found that just 28.5% of women are in the Yes camp. Exclude those who don't know how they will vote and the figure rises to only 35%. On the same calculation, fully 52% of men will vote for independence come September. The gender gap is real. The question no-one has answered - least of all male politicians reminiscing over chat-up lines - is why it exists.

It isn't new. The Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey has tracked a relative female reluctance to back independence throughout this century. There is no evidence, however, that women feel "less Scottish" than men. Nor do their responses show that female voters are more likely than their male counterparts to fear disaster after a Yes vote. Fear, where it exists, is not gender-specific, at least according to the SSA.

Over time, in fact, the attitudes survey has found a more interesting difference. It could be paraphrased like this: when women say they don't know, they really don't know. In other words, they are more likely to be uncertain about the consequences of Yes - or less likely to be blasé - than men. Despite the efforts of independence campaigners, despite the SNP's proposed childcare reforms, despite the bitter experiences of working women under the Coalition's austerity regime, uncertainty persists.

This need not dictate a No vote in September, of course. Most polls say the number of don't knows, though still running at around 15%, has diminished markedly. There is good evidence that when people do make up their minds they tend to choose Yes. Meanwhile, some surveys seem - an important word - to indicate that the gender gap has been closing. Take all this together and the belief that Scottish women will preserve the Union becomes questionable.

There is, in any case, an important little fact of life that suits neither pollsters nor those fighting a referendum battle: No-one is obliged to decide in April about a choice in September just because it suits a campaign. Some people are liable to become thrawn. The idea of the "settled will" is one of those untested clichés of Scottish life. Clearly some people intend to take their time in reaching a decision.

The fact remains that the Yes campaign has made less headway with women than with men. Carmichael, Wilson and Lamont would explain it with their own propaganda. So women can spot a chancer - through the magic of intuition, no doubt - and have a rational appreciation of the horrors predicted by Better Together. Women, taking responsibility for home and family, are too practical to succumb to the romantic allegiances of history or sport. Women use their heads, in short, and men do not.

It is all very neat. It is also profoundly patronising, as though women are incapable of considering domestic security and their country's governance simultaneously. The effect is to portray them as timid, parochial, suspicious, lacking in imagination and suited only to the role of hausfrau. The chaps of Better Together therefore assume that women are natural supporters of Unionism. This takes a lot, female voters not least, for granted.

A sizeable number of women remain to be convinced by independence. That doesn't mean they cannot be convinced. Scottish Labour knows this full well, hence its latest, less than original "five pledges" on childcare, pay differentials, return-to-work help, the living wage and equal representation for women on the boards of public bodies. Much of this is aspirational rather than legislative, but it is meant to match the SNP's efforts in making an offer to supposedly elusive voters. A pity, then, that the referendum is not an election campaign.

Just over a year ago, the late Professor Ailsa McKay of Glasgow Caledonian asked herself about the gender gap. Were Scottish women risk-averse or fickle? McKay didn't recognise the descriptions. "In fact," she wrote, "it is precisely because women 'care' that they remain undecided."

According to McKay, women are "preoccupied" with the domestic economy for the simple reason that most are still stuck with responsibility for households. Equally, while they are as interested in politics as men, they are limited in their access by the kind of society that allows only three women in the Coalition Cabinet. Furthermore, Scottish women have been hammered by recession, with their unemployment rate almost doubling between 2007 and 2012.

Add the fall in full-time working, welfare cuts, and the eradication of public-sector jobs. In each case, women have been affected disproportionately. At every turn, with their economic security undermined, they have been squeezed out of the argument. Rather than displaying a stereotypical devotion to hearth and home, they have been struggling for survival. Society as it is has marginalised them in the debate over this society's future.

So ran McKay's argument. It doesn't quite explain the gender gap, or why so many women are not yet militant for change. A better, simpler explanation might be that female voters who have not yet engaged with the debate are resorting to stock answers when pressed by pollsters.

What is clear, nevertheless, is that voters who are most uncertain about what independence might bring have a clear, certain knowledge of what the alternative has to offer. Women can win the referendum or they can lose it, by themselves and for themselves. Better Together shouldn't take too many things, or people, for granted.

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