Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Monday, 8 March 2010

Why do women vote differently from men?

Gordon Brown and David Cameron
Let the baby hugging begin...

Parenting websites, fashion magazines and daytime TV. As the election looms, politicians will pop up in or on them all in the fight for the female vote. But why do women need to be targeted differently and does it work, asks Professor Alison Wolf.

British politicians queued up recently to name their favourite biscuits on Mumsnet, the social networking site for parents. They have also been cosying up to the editors of fashion and gossip magazines like Grazia.

Woman and baby
Women voters globally are concerned with policies that concern family life

It suggests an oddly old-fashioned and patronising view of women. Half the workforce is now female and academically girls are well ahead of boys. Does this approach really make sense?

Actually, it just might. Politically, women are distinct and vote differently from men, sometimes by large margins. This gender gap is not peculiarly British, on the contrary, at election time a gender gap opens up everywhere in the world.

Well-researched explanations as to why this is so are surprisingly hard to find. But we do know that, over time, the female vote has swung in different directions. In Britain, women were once much more likely than men to vote Conservative. This wasn't because 1950s women voted like their husbands, in fact they voted quite differently.

During the 1980s and 1990s many women, especially younger ones, moved left and the gender gap shrank fast. By early this decade, women under 35 were much more likely to support the Lib Dems than men of the same age, but overall they were on occasion giving Labour more votes than men were. Now the polls suggest this is reversing itself once more.

Intuitive

We tend to think British elections, and British society, are dominated by class and that men and women will basically vote their class interest. This clearly isn't true.

Professor Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex observes that "over time class politics has declined, got much less important, and people are much more pick and mix about which party they'll choose. Whereas in the 1950s people would stay with their party even when they felt it was not performing well".

These changes give politicians a strong incentive to find out what women want, hence the fascination with Mumsnet. The site has 400,000 members and three quarters of a million are signed up to rival Netmums. Going online offers a chance to project yourself and your party. If it highlights women's specific concerns, it is time doubly well spent.

WHY PUBLIC MATTERS TO WOMEN
Two thirds of public sector employees are now women
In the last decade 90% of new jobs taken by women have been in the public sector
Teachers and nurses are overwhelmingly female, so are school support staff

Modern research on elections shows there are three big influences at work when people decide how to vote. One is party loyalty, or partisanship. Some people, men and women, never change their party. Second is any big issues that an individual cares about and the third is the leaders on offer.

Women cared about their families in the past and they care about them now. But although this hasn't changed, lives have. Fifty years ago the contrasts between men and women were much more obvious. Married women stayed at home and men went out to work - but big differences still exist.

Dr Rosie Campbell, of the University of London's Birkbeck College, is a specialist on voting behaviour. She thinks changes in how women combine home life with paid employment are very important in explaining why many women have swung to the left.

"We know that women do the majority of domestic work and childcare," she says. "And that when they become mothers, there is an impact upon their work/life balance.

Signals

"I would suspect this is all about family life. It's saying 'well actually, if I'm going to be out in the workplace, then I need the state to intervene more to provide things like childcare'."

The nature of other countries' gender gaps supports this argument. American women are significantly less hostile to a "big state" than American men and much more likely to vote Democrat. In Sweden, women are particularly anxious to preserve the welfare state and vote accordingly.

Of course, no politician will announce that they're against the family. But there is ample space for inter-party competition on this count and good reasons to project yourself actively as supporting families and mothers.

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Leaders matter to both men and women. And sometimes, though not always, women like a particular leader far more strongly than men do.

"Labour support jumped dramatically in 1994," says Prof Whiteley. "Why? Because Labour got a new leader, Tony Blair, who was very popular at the time, and women in particular liked him."

A leader's popularity rests on whether people like and trust them and feel they understand ordinary lives. Many voters, including many women, have no interest in detailed policies. They vote on a more intuitive feel for the whole package on offer.

And women do seem, on average, to respond to rather different signals from men. So the mood music matters. In fact, to reach undecided women as election day approaches, Mumsnet is probably less good than Grazia and daytime TV better still.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I agree that women are more concerned about welfare related issues - particularly as we are more likely to be working and still doing much of the childcare & domestic chores. However, I am concerned that the way a leader looks or the music used would influence women voters. This is the 21st century ladies - use your head and vote on the policies not the pretty bits!
Anita Hunt, N Lincolnshire

I find this rather generic and classically stereotypical. As a single woman with no inclination for having children the most important thing to me isn't family issues, it's the fact that yet again the person who chooses to remain single ends up no better off. A woman I don't watch daytime TV (I have a full-time job), I don't read fashion magazines (prefer a book) and never go to parenting websites (because they aren't relevant to me). Am I, a single woman in her 30s, again going to be considered irrelevant, a very foolish decision on the part of any potential government when you consider that the number of single women is going up, not down!
Raye, Sussex, UK

The fact that David Cameron gave an interview to Glamour, and similar magazines like Grazia are getting in on the act, suggests there is also a shift to political parties going after the votes of young career women this election, after sidelining them for some time. That's not saying mothers don't read these magazines - they do - but on the understanding that glossy women's magazines tend to be aimed at an audience aged 21-34, who are in professional employment but with a hefty chunk of disposable income, it suggests that these are the voters they want to reach. Yes women still care about services - after all, everyone needs healthcare at some point, and we hope that our streets will be kept safe - but the fact that they're really going for those audiences in a big way suggests that women's view of political parties may be shifting away from the traditional issues.
Laura, Lancaster

What tosh! I am a woman working in a professional career. I am interested in taxation, education and health. I chose to have children, it is my responsibility to source childcare for them so I can work and provide them with the essentials not a nanny-state. Just as I am the one who should be ensuring they receive healthy meals, adequate exercise and plenty of quality time with the adults of the household. I don't care what biscuits MPs eat, what music they like or how they live to spend there evenings/free-time. I want to know that they are going to run the country in a successful and productive manner with sound, realistic economics and not be "in it for themselves".
Pauline Yates, Cambridge

Why lump half the population together? As a single professional who has no intention of having children anytime soon, I feel totally alienated and patronised by this approach - why is it assumed that all women have the same needs, any more than all men? I suspect issues like childcare would be of more interest to a family man than they are to me and I don't go on Mumsnet either... and while we're on the subject, I don't need a "special" Question Time to make up my mind about who I'm going to vote for!
Hannah, Norfolk, UK

I just wish politicians would remember that not all women have children and that not all women wish to be regarded solely on the products of their womb. What about talking about unequal pay, domestic violence, the less than 6% rape conviction rate or the fact that most carers of adults are women? You know, the stuff that actually affects women rather than banging on about biscuit choices.
Sarah, London

The fact that women and men need different kinds of campaign just shows how far we still have left in the fight for equality. Of course men and women have lots of differences, but if we were really treated equally there would be no need to approach women on more domestic issues than men, because that campaign (and those aimed at career-centric people) would be aimed at all parents, not just mothers.
Gemma, Reading



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