The Gender Gap in Australian Elections


Research Paper 3 1997-98

Jennifer Curtin
Politics and Public Administration Group
20 October 1997

Contents

Major Issues Summary

Introduction

History of the gender gap in Australia

Recent gender differences in voting patterns in Australia

How other variables intersect with gender

Income
Age

Cross-national trends

The United States
Britain

Discussion and conclusions

Appendix: House of Representatives Elections 1987-96

Endnotes

Major Issues Summary

Over the last decade there has been a marked increase in interest in what has been labelled the gender gap. While generally there has always been a gender gap in terms of the representation of women and men in the decision-making arenas of politics, the existence and pertinence of a gender gap with respect to voting behaviour and political attitudes is still under discussion. Party strategists and researchers, both in Australia and overseas, continue to investigate how the gender gap might manifest itself and what its relevance is to policy proposals and outcomes.

The gender gap is best understood as gender differences in vote. Between 1910 and 1966 it appears that men on average lent slightly more support to the ALP than to the Liberal-Country Party coalition, while a marginally greater percentage of women on average supported the Coalition compared to the Australian Labor Party (ALP). There was one exception to this trend, at the 1917 election, where three in four men supported the Nationalist Party and a similar number of women supported the ALP.

Between 1987 and 1996 the percentage of women choosing the Coalition has been higher than the percentage of men supporting the Coalition. The single exception was in 1990 where there was no difference between the percentage of women and men who intended to vote Coalition. In 1993, a seven percentage point gender gap appeared through gains made in the female vote. This gender gap decreased to one percentage point in 1996, this time largely as a result of 10 percentage point increase in support from men.

Although the ALP received 49 per cent support from women in 1987, this was still four percentage points lower than men's support for the ALP. The gender gap closed to two points in 1990 but began to widen again at the 1993 election, representing a reversal of the longer term trend whereby gender differences in support for the ALP had been declining over the last 25 years. While the ALP's gender gap was reduced to five points in 1996, this was not a result of increasing numbers of women voting ALP, but because of a drop in the ALP's male vote.

In addition to there being a gender gap between women and men who support the ALP, more women have voted for the Coalition than for the ALP since 1987, with a gap of 18 points evident in 1996. Male support for the ALP is somewhat erratic while the male vote for the Coalition has been more consistent over time, with 1996 being the first election where the Coalition gained significantly more of the male vote than the ALP.

The women's vote is not monolithic. Differences between women are often as diverse as those between women and men. With respect to income, the Coalition received slightly more support from women than men in the majority of income groups in the 1996 election, while the ALP received more support from men than women in every income group. The ALP also gained considerably less support than the Coalition from both men and women earning under $25 000. In terms of age, in the 1993 election, both younger men and younger women were less likely to show support for the Coalition compared with older men and women. In the 1996 election, younger women and men were less likely to support the Coalition than older women and men, but in contrast to 1993, women and men under 30 were more likely to vote for the Coalition than the ALP. Support for the ALP declined with age while support for the Coalition continued to increase with age amongst both sexes.

Australia is by no means unique in having a history of women voting more conservatively than men. Research indicates that female conservatism was for many years a feature of voting behaviour in Europe and the United States. In the United States this has begun to change with more women supporting the Democrats than men. The percentage of women supporting the Democrats increasing from 45 in 1992 to 54 in 1996. Trends in women's voting behaviour in Britain are more like those in Australia, in that the Conservatives have consistently done better among women, while Labour has gained more support from men.

Gender is but one of a number of social cleavages that influence political attitudes, social values, electoral behaviour and partisan loyalties. However, it cannot be ignored as a fracture, either in its own right, or in the way it intersects with other variables such as income and age. Perhaps it will never be possible to predict how women will vote as compared to men, or compared to other women. Such choices are contingent on many other factors. This dilemma offers a challenge to political parties to think creatively about working families in all their varieties, in order to identify interests and to develop issues and policies that will attract both women and men and, as such, become the ultimate 'catch-all' party.

Introduction

Over the last decade there has been a marked increase in interest in what has been labelled the gender gap. While generally there has always been a gender gap in terms of the representation of women and men in the decision-making arenas of politics, the existence and pertinence of a gender gap with respect to voting behaviour and political attitudes is still under discussion.

Definitions of the 'gender gap' varies across countries. In North America, the gender gap has referred to a greater number of women than men supporting political parties to the left of centre. The coining of such a term resulted from the trends evident in the 1980 presidential election, where eight per cent fewer women than men voted for Ronald Reagan. Historically, such a gender difference in a national election was unprecedented. In Britain however, the gender gap refers to any gender differences in voting, rather than implying women are more left of centre than men. This may be because no gender gap in the American sense has become apparent in Britain.

There are two dimensions to the gender gap or gender differences in voting. The first relates to the gender ratio of each party's support or, in other words, what percentage of conservative voters are women and what percentage are men. The second dimension is the extent to which women as a group split their vote between parties and the extent to which men split their vote. Failure to distinguish these dimensions can lead to a misinterpretation of the gender gap.(1)

Furthermore, discussion of the gender gap in terms of one particular election result may not take into account the support that flows between parties from one election to another. It necessarily follows that, depending on the shifts of support between parties, the magnitude of the gender gap will also differ. As a result, one party's share of the gender vote may have less to do with gender per se and more to do with the swing either towards or away from particular political parties.(2)

Thus, the gender gap is more complex than is often presumed to be the case. Indeed, as one American commentator has noted 'the gender gap's dominant characteristic is its elusiveness, materialising in some races but not others, sometimes waxing and sometimes waning'.(3) Nor is the women's vote a monolithic bloc. Yet, whatever the definition of the gender gap, the issue of gender differences in attitudes and voting patterns has acquired a momentum of its own. In terms of analysis, questions are now being asked as to how the gender gap might manifest itself, how it has been used and reacted to by various interests and what has been its impact on policy proposals and outcomes. In this sense, the perceived relevance of women's votes and how they compare with men's, continues to play an important part in the definition of policy proposals and action.

This paper does not seek to provide an overarching or final explanation of the gender gap in Australian politics, but rather examines both dimensions of the gender gap outlined above (that is how women compare with men within parties and how women and men compare with their counterparts across parties). The focus is on both men and women and their potential shifts in voting intention and party identification. In this paper the gender gap will refer to gender differences in voting behaviour more generally (for example, Coalition male vote minus Coalition female vote). The 1987-1996 data analysed below are taken from the Australian Election Survey data sets supplied by the Social Science Data Archives at the Australian National University.(4)

The remainder of the paper does the following:

  • provides an overview of the history of the gender gap in Australia
  • offers a more detailed analysis of recent gender differences in voting behaviour in Australia
  • examines where Australia fits with cross-national trends
  • concludes by arguing that while the gender gap may not be a systematic phenomenon, it does nevertheless have important implications for political parties seeking to attract the women's vote.

History of the gender gap in Australia

At the turn of the century, giving women the right to vote was seen by many anti-suffragists as a threat to the traditional social order. There was a fear that women would desert their traditional roles of caring for home, husbands and children.(5) Yet many suffragists saw political equality not as a substitute for their maternal role but rather as an extension of it. Many of the arguments used by women in their claim for universal suffrage drew upon notions of the specificity of womanhood and the feminine qualities that came with this difference.

Furthermore, there was some anticipation in several other countries that when women first got the vote they would then create a unified political force. While women in many countries had organised en masse around issues of suffrage and temperance, the translation of this into female solidarity as voters remained a myth. Within Australia, the fear of women voting as a bloc was never a real issue since women did not form the majority of those eligible to vote. For example, in Western Australia in 1899, there were only 20 000 women of voting age compared to 70 000 men.(6)

Australian studies concerning the gender gap in voting behaviour during these early years of women's participation as citizens are largely non-existent. Nevertheless, the view that women were more likely to be conservative voters than men came to predominate both here and overseas. This view was based on smatterings of research conducted overseas, much of which was superficial in its methodological approach.(7) The exception was The Political Role of Women, published in 1955, which did indicate a conservatism on the part of women voters.(8)

Much of the research undertaken around the 1950s and 1960s did not include gender as a key variable in comparative electoral studies. Australian political scientists, Goot and Reid, note that research questionnaires often only used men, based on an assumption that women would vote the same way as their husbands or fathers.(9) (There has been some research of late which seeks to dispel this notion).(10) Even when early research techniques included women in the sample, women's behaviour was not analysed since it was thought that interest in politics was largely concentrated among men (even though 43 per cent of women surveyed said they did have an interest in politics).(11)

The first Australian academic surveys of political behaviour were undertaken in 1967, 1969 and 1979. Using this data, Aitkin published an analysis of the gender gap in these years. He found that there were gender differences between the parties in terms of what he labelled party loyalty. Overall, in 1967, the ALP had a much larger proportion of strong identifiers than did the Liberal Party. Dividing these party supporters by sex sharpened these differences. On the ALP side, four in ten men were strong identifiers while the proportion of women who were strong identifiers was much lower than this figure. In the non-Labor parties however, it was women more than men who were likely to be the strong identifiers.(12)

The male/female variable mattered at every split in Aitkin's study of the 1967 data. In every sub-group, such as manual workers, union members, churchgoers, income, age, home-owners, husbands and wives and so on, men were more likely than women to identify with the ALP. However, there was not much support for the apparent conservatism of women as a result of women living longer than men or that old people tend to be conservative. Aitkin grouped respondents according to national origin, age and sex and in every group, that is, not just the group over 60, women were more conservative than men. The only exception was that of foreign-born women over 60, who were more likely than their male counterparts to identify with the ALP, although the difference was negligible.(13)

In terms of the 1979 data, there was still evidence of a gender gap across parties and categories. However, class variables had little impact on the difference between men and women with respect to ALP/non-Labor partisanship. Rather, religion and church attendance became much more important for women, while occupation, union membership, and income were important for men. This is in contrast to the situation in 1967, where women were more like men in terms of what determined their partisanship for the ALP. Class variables became less relevant to women over those 12 years. Aitkin views the gender gap apparent over this period of time as related to a 'differential appeal of the parties to the sexes'.(14)

Knowing whether the gender gap is a permanent feature of voting behaviour or if it is a fickle phenomenon requires historical analysis which has not been possible because of a lack of data. Research has recently been undertaken using actual votes as a proxy for partisanship to estimate the numbers of men and women supporting the various major parties between 1910 and 1967. While there is no direct information on the way women and men vote, since the ballot is secret, a method called 'ecological inference' is used where the number of women and men in each sub-division (as estimated by the census) is cross-tabulated with actual vote.(15)

Between 1910 and 1966 it appears that men on average lent slightly more support to the ALP (48.4 per cent) than to the Liberal-Country Party coalition (47.4 per cent), while a marginally greater percentage of women on average supported the Coalition (48.9 per cent) compared to the ALP (46.2 per cent). There was one exception to this trend. At the 1917 election, three in four men supported the Nationalist Party and a similar percentage of women supported the ALP. This may be a result of opposite male and female preferences about military and religious issues, in particular the conscription referendum of 1917, which were on the agenda at that time.

Discounting this extreme departure from the general trends, there has been a tendency for men to support the ALP and women to support the Coalition since 1910. However, although there is an average gender gap of 4.3 per cent for the ALP in favour of men, and an average gender gap of 3.6 per cent for the Coalition in favour of women, the magnitude of this gap has varied from one election to the next, with there being little consistency in the size of the gaps over time.(16) Figures 1 and 2 indicate these trends in more detail.

Figure 1: Gender Gap for the Coalition 1910-66

Figure 1: Gender Gap for the Coalition 1910-66

Source: Christian Leithner, 'A Gender Gap in Australia? Commonwealth Elections 1910-96', Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 32, no. 1, 1997, pp. 29-47.

Figure 2: Gender Gap for the ALP 1910-66

Figure 2: Gender Gap for the ALP 1910-66

Source: Leithner, 1997.

Recent gender differences in voting patterns in Australia

This section reviews the more recent trends in the voting behaviour of women and men in Australia. It focuses first on the two dimensions of the gender gap mentioned in the introduction: the gender ratio of each party's support and the extent to which women and men as distinct groups split their vote between the two major parties. Second, it desegregates the gender gap by income and age to examine the extent to which women might be seen to be a 'voting bloc'.

The following three tables illustrate the gender differential in votes in the House of Representatives for the Coalition, the ALP and the Australian Democrats respectively. Looking first at the Coalition, what is apparent is that at almost every survey between 1987 and 1996, when asked about voting choice, the percentage of women choosing the Coalition has been higher than the percentage of men supporting the Coalition. The single exception was in 1990 where there was no difference between the percentage of women and men who intended to vote Coalition.

Table 1: Vote for Coalition in the House of Representatives

                 %Women            %Men     Difference 
1987                  43             42              1 
1990                  43             43              0 
1993                  48             41              7 
1996                  52             51              1 

Source: Australian Election Surveys, 1987-96.

In terms of consistency over time, the gender gap in voter support for the Coalition is minimal and not notable except in 1993, where a seven percentage point gender gap is evident. This gap does not appear to be solely a result of the Coalition losing the male vote (a two percentage point drop), but rather gains were made in the female vote (which rose from 43 per cent to 48 per cent).

More interestingly perhaps, is the closure of the Coalition's gender gap from seven percentage points in 1993 to one point in 1996. While the Coalition's support from women increased by four points at the 1996 election, there was a 10 per cent point increase in support from men, with the percentage of men voting for the Coalition rising from 41 per cent to 51 per cent. Andrew Robb, former Federal Director of the Liberal Party, maintains that despite a swing towards the Coalition across nearly all demographic groups, a significant characteristic of the 1996 result was the considerable shift to the Coalition of a segment of the ALP's traditional male base.(17)

Turning to the ALP, between 1987 and 1990 the percentage of women who said they voted ALP dropped from 49 to 40 per cent. In 1993, the percentage of women choosing ALP rose again to 46 per cent, but by 1996 had dropped to a low of 34 per cent.

Table 2: Vote for the ALP in the House of Representatives

                  %Women           %Men     Difference 
1987                  49             53             -4 
1990                  40             42             -2 
1993                  46             52             -6 
1996                  34             39             -5 

Source: Australian Election Surveys, 1987-96.

Although the ALP received 49 per cent support from women in 1987, this was still four percentage points lower than men's support for the ALP. This is despite the fact that the ALP employed a 'gender gap' strategy in 1987 which involved a focus on education, employment, child-care, pensions, families and arguably provided women with 'no choice' except to vote for the ALP.(18) While the gender gap closed to two points in 1990, the ALP lost nine percentage points amongst women, and 11 points amongst men. Furthermore, the gap began to widen again at the 1993 election, with 52 per cent of men but only 46 per cent of women supporting the ALP. This finding represents a significant reversal of the longer term trend whereby gender differences in support for the ALP had been declining over the last 25 years.(19)

One paradox of the increased gender differences in support for the ALP in 1993 is that in the lead-up to the election Prime Minister Paul Keating hired the former head of the Office of Status of Women, Anne Summers, as an adviser to design policies for women voters. That there was no obvious translation of such efforts into votes for the ALP from women has been attributed to several factors. It is argued that the electorate could discern no substantial differences between the women's policies of the parties and that the ALP's failure to honour its commitment to pre-select women in winnable seats may have damaged its credibility.(20) In addition, more women than men favoured John Hewson as a leader, while Prime Minister Paul Keating was rated more positively by men.(21)

While the ALP's gender gap was reduced to five points in 1996, this was not a result of increasing numbers of women voting ALP. Rather, the ALP's share of the women's vote fell 12 per cent between 1993 and 1996, while the male vote dropped 13 per cent from 52 per cent to 39 per cent. Overall, at every survey since 1987, when asked about voting choice, the percentage of women choosing the ALP has remained lower than the percentage of men choosing the ALP.

Figures for the Australian Democrats, shown in Table 3, indicate that since 1987, women have been more likely to vote for the Democrats than men in the House of Representatives, although the size of this gap has varied over time. The exception was in 1993, when there was no difference between men and women. Support by both women and men for the Democrats peaked in 1990, at 14 per cent and 11 per cent respectively, and dropped significantly in 1993. Some of this lost ground was made up in 1996. In particular, the support from women rose by five per cent to eight per cent. Also displayed in Table 3 is the percentage support for the Democrats in the Senate. It is evident that the Democrats received considerably more support in the Senate than in the House of Representatives, but that the gender gap is more varied, with more men than women voting Democrats in 1993 and 1996.

Table 3: Vote for Australian Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate

                 House of Represetnatives                           Senate
              %Women       %Men     Difference           %Women      %Men         Difference 
1987               7          4         3 1987               10         7                  3 
1990              14         11         3 1990               17        13                  4 
1993               3          3         0 1993                6         8                 -2 
1996               8          5         3 1996               13        14                 -1 

Source: Australian Election Surveys, 1987-96.

The data displayed in Figures 3 and 4 focus on how women as a group and men as a group have split their votes between the two major parties. In addition to there being a gender gap between women and men who support the ALP, with consistently more men than women showing support, Figure 3 indicates that, except in 1987, more women have voted for the Coalition than for the ALP, with a gap of 18 points evident in 1996.

Figures 3: Women's voting choice 1987-96

Figures 3: Women's voting choice 1987-96

Source: Australian Election Surveys 1987-96.

With respect to men as a group, the data in Figure 4 indicates that male support for the ALP is somewhat erratic. The male vote for the Coalition has been more consistent over time, with 1996 being the first election where the Coalition gained significantly more of the male vote than the ALP. (For overall results of 1987-96 elections see Appendix).

Figure 4: Men's voting choice 1987-96

Figure 4: Men's voting choice 1987-96

Source: Australian Election Surveys, 1987-96.

How other variables intersect with gender

Examining how the gender gap is intersected by income and age may shed greater light on the generality of the gender gap and help us to understand whether it is practical to view women as a distinct voting bloc.

Income

In terms of vote and income, intuition suggests that those earning less would be more likely to vote for the ALP since it has traditionally been seen as the 'workers' party. However, more recently political parties have had to appeal to a broad range of voters, moving beyond their traditional reliance on particular class groupings, because socio-economic status is now a fluid category. Voters have become increasingly mobile with respect to jobs, income and material expectations over time.(22) Using the manual/non-manual distinction as a proxy for class, research shows that in 1996 43 per cent of manual workers voted Coalition compared with 44 per cent for the ALP, while 49 per cent of non-manual workers voted Coalition compared with 36 per cent for the ALP.(23)

Another measure of socio-economic status is income. Figure 5 displays the cross-tabulation of vote, gender and income using 1996 Australian Election Survey data. The Coalition received slightly more support from women than men in the majority of income groups, although the differences are not significant. The ALP on the other hand, received more support from men than women in every income group, particularly in the

$ 25-30 000 income bracket, where the difference was statistically significant(24). It is also evident that the ALP gained considerably less support from both men and women than the Coalition in the ALP's traditional groupings, that is those earning under $25 000.

Figure 5: Vote in the House of Representatives for 1996 election by income and gender

Figure 5: Vote in the House of Representatives for 1996 election by income and gender

Source: Australian Election Survey 1996.

Age

With respect to variation between women according to age, analysis of 1979 survey data highlighted that women born before 1950 demonstrated a preference for non-Labor parties, while there was a swing to the ALP amongst younger women.(25) More recent research looks at how age influenced the gender gap in the 1993 election to discern whether there was a generational difference in the gender gap. Male and female voters were split into two further sub-groups labelled younger and older voters, using an arbitrary cut-off of those older and younger than 33. Results showed that both younger men and younger women were less likely to show support for the Coalition (34 per cent and 41 per cent respectively) compared with older men and women (44 per cent and 50 per cent respectively). However, amongst younger women, more supported the ALP (52 per cent) than the Coalition (41 per cent). Although younger people appeared less conservative than their older counterparts, a gender difference did exist between women and men in this younger age group who voted ALP (52 per cent and 58 per cent respectively), with a gap of six per cent in favour of men. This gap reflects the overall gender gap between women and men who voted ALP in 1993.(26)

Looking at how age and gender intersect in voting patterns for the 1996 election, some similarities and differences exist (see Figure 6). Again younger women and men were less likely to support the Coalition than older women and men. In contrast to 1993 however, women and men under 30 were more likely to vote for the Coalition than the ALP, with 50 per cent of women in this age group supporting the Coalition, compared to only 35.5 per cent supporting the ALP. While the split between the two parties was smaller in the 30-39 age bracket, support for the ALP declined with age while support for the Coalition continued to increase with age amongst both sexes. In every age group, the ALP polled lower amongst women than men.(27)

Figure 6: Vote in the House of Representatives for 1996 election by age and gender

Figure 6: Vote in the House of Representatives for 1996 election by age and gender

Source: Australian Election Survey, 1996.

Private polling undertaken by the two major parties around the time of the 1996 election did indicate differences according to age. A statistically significant gender difference in support for the ALP was evident for those in the 18-29 age group, with more men than women choosing the ALP, and a considerable gender gap was also apparent in the 30-39 age group and the 40-49 age group. By February 1996, female support for the ALP was between five and seven percentage points below that of males across all age groups, although the gap was no longer significant in the 40-49 age group.(28) According to a Liberal Party exit poll, the 25-35 year old male vote for the Coalition increased by 12 per cent to 47 per cent, which translated into an eight per cent lead over the ALP. The 35-49 year old male vote also increased by nearly eight percentage points to 49 per cent.(29) Indeed, Robb has argued that age intersected with gender (as distinct from gender in itself) is of considerable importance when analysing the dimensions of partisan support.(30)

Cross-national trends

Australia is by no means unique in having a history of women voting more conservatively than men. Research indicates that female conservatism was for many years a feature of voting behaviour in Europe and the United States. The following section gives a broad overview of women's voting behaviour in Europe, and a more detailed picture of the gender gap in the United States and Britain.

Up until the 1970s, women were more likely than men to vote for conservative parties in West Germany, France, Greece, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden and Finland.(31) However, since the mid-1970s this trend has changed in several countries. In Sweden, women have been less likely than men to vote for the conservative party, while left voting generally (that is, voting for the Left Party and the Social Democrats) increased among women and declined among men in the 1980s.(32) In other Nordic countries, gender differences in party choice are modest, although there is some indication of gender differences amongst younger voters, suggesting perhaps a wider gender gap in the future (assuming that the voting choice of individuals does not alter with age).(33) While women continued to form the solid base of support for the Christian right parties in France and Germany (around 45 per cent) during the 1980s, the percentage difference between men and women supporting parties of the left closed.(34)

Looking at women and men's voting behaviour in the 1994 European Parliament elections (Table 4), it appears that there are considerable national variations. More women than men supported parties of the left in West and East Germany, Portugal, Spain and Denmark. In contrast, in Britain, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland and France, women appear more likely than men to be right-wing in their voting choice. In the latter three countries, there was very little support by either men or women for parties of the left. In the remainder of the countries, that is Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands, there were no significant gender differences in party choice. This data is not comparable with the national election data outlined above but does provide a general indication of gendered voting patterns in Europe in the 1990s.

Table 4: The gender gap in vote for European Parliament 1994

                          Left-wing vote        Right-wing vote 
                        %Women       %Men     %Women        %Men 
Belgium                     30         27         31          29 
Britain                     45         51         33          24 
Denmark                     34         28         43          40 
France                      12         13         36          33 
Germany (East)              50         42         47          49 
Germany (West)              40         39         38          41 
Greece                      52         54         41          39 
Italy                        7          8         71          67 
Ireland                     16         18         75          73 
Luxembourg                  28         30         44          34 
Netherlands                 30         30         45          46 
Portugal                    80         76         20          24 
Spain                       28         27         45          48 

Source: Pippa Norris, 'Gender Realignment in Comparative Perspective' in M. Simms, ed., The Paradox of Parties, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996, pp. 109-129.

The United States

It was in the United States that the gender gap was first highlighted and analysed in some detail by researchers. Evidence from electoral studies in the 1950s and 1960s showed that women in the United States were the 'backbone' of centre-right parties, although not the far right.(35) However, more recently ideas about women's conservatism have been challenged by the fact that proportionately more women have begun to vote Democrat. This phenomenon was what originally became known as the gender gap. Over time it appears that the gender realignment in the United States has consolidated over successive elections, with more women than men voting Democrat in presidential elections. Table 5 highlights these changes in more detail.

Table 5: The gender gap in the United States 1976-96

                               % Women               % Men 
1976 (Presidential)                                             
Democrat                            48                  53 
Republican                          51                  45 

1980 (Presidential)                                             
Democrat                            46                  38 
Republican                          47                  55 
Other                                7                   7 

1984 (Presidential)                                             
Democrat                            42                  38 
Republican                          58                  62 

1988 (Presidential)                                             
Democrat                            49                  42 
Republican                          51                  58 

1992 (Presidential)                                             
Democrat                            45                  41 
Republican                          37                  38 
Other                               17                  21 

1994 (Mid-term)                                            
Democrat                            54                  43 
Republican                          46                  57 

1996 (Presidential)                                             
Democrat                            54                  46 
Republican                          37                  46 
Other                                9                   8 

Source: Everett Carll Ladd, 'Media Framing of the Gender Gap' in Pippa Norris (ed.), Women, Media and Politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997, pp. 113-128.

Focusing on the Democrats' share of the vote, it is evident that the gender gap has widened from four percentage points in 1992 to eight percentage points in 1996, with the percentage of women supporting the Democrats increasing from 45 per cent in 1992 to 54 per cent in 1996, an increase of nine percentage points.

Despite there being a gap between men and women who voted Democrat, between 1948 and 1992, more women have nevertheless tended to vote for the Republicans than the Democrats. Even in 1992, fewer women voted for the Democrats than for non-Democrat candidates. Adding together the women's vote for both Perot and Bush in the 1992 election, 54 per cent of women did not vote for the Democrats. However, by 1994, this trend had reversed with an eight percentage point difference between women who voted Democrat and women who voted Republican. This trend continued into the 1996 election, with the percentage of the vote given by women to both Perot and Dole (46 per cent) still eight percentage points lower than the 54 per cent of women who voted Democrat. This represents a considerable historical shift, since the last time there was a significant gap between the percentage of women voting for Democrat and Republican (in favour of the Democrats) was in 1964.

Also of interest is what has happened with the male vote. Prior to 1992, considerably more men tended to support Republican candidates over Democrat candidates. Since this time however, the percentage of men who voted Democrat increased by two percentage points between 1992 and 1994 and by another three percentage points between 1994 and 1996. Indeed, the male vote was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats in 1996. The more recent shift by men away from the Republicans reduced the gender gap from 11 points in 1994 to eight points in 1996.

With respect to women, Clinton and the Democrats increased their support among married and single women in the 1996 election, especially non university-educated working women. While Democrats have been making gains with single women since the early 1980s, gains among married women are new. It is argued that issues of health and education addressed by Clinton in the 1996 election campaign, were important to these women.(36)

Britain

Trends in women's voting behaviour in Britain are more like those in Australia, in that the Conservatives have consistently done better among women, while Labour has gained more support from men (Table 6).

Table 6: The gender gap in vote in Britain 1945-97

                             Labour              Conservative            
                       %Women        %Men      %Women       %Men 
1945                       45          51          43         35 
1950                       43          46          45         41 
1955                       42          51          55         47 
1959                       43          48          51         45 
1964                       47          47          43         40 
1966                       51          54          41         36 
1970                       42          48          48         43 
1974                       40          42          39         37 
1979                       38          38          49         45 
1983                       28          30          45         46 
1987                       31          31          44         44 
1992                       34          37          48         46 
1997                       46          46          33         32 

Source: Pippa Norris, 'Mobilising the "Women's Vote": The Gender-Generation Gap in Voting Behaviour', Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 29, no. 2, 1996, pp. 333-342. 1997 data from BBC exit polls drawn from a paper forthcoming in Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 30, no. 4, September 1997.

Early data indicates that in the 1997 election, 46 per cent of women voted Labour, the highest since 1966. No gender gap is evident between women and men who voted Labour (although gaps have not been more than three percentage points since 1970). Also, 1997 was the first time since 1974 that more women had voted Labour than Conservative. This is a considerable turn-around since in the past women have proved an average seven per cent more predisposed to vote Conservative than men, and women were vital to Conservative wins in the 1980s.(37) Whether this shift by women to Labour becomes a trend remains to be seen.(38)

Over the last twenty years then, evidence seems to suggest that in many countries there has been a shift in women's voting patterns. However, the political complexion of parties is not the same in every country. For example, with respect to the left in Italy, the dominant component up until the early 1990s has been communist with a strong minority socialist presence. In most other European countries the dominant component is social democratic, sometimes with a minority communist presence. In Canada and the United States, the left is dominated by parties which elsewhere would be considered liberal rather than social democratic.(39) Similar ambiguities exist with parties of the right, with respect to the degrees of conservatism-liberalism. This is often related to the degree of religiosity in various countries, in particular, the prevalence of Catholicism.(40)

Discussion and conclusions

In the 1950s and 1960s, women's electoral conservatism was thought to be a product of their higher levels of religiosity, their lower levels of trade union membership and because they lived longer than their male counterparts.(41) However, as has been shown, the phenomenon is more complex and, with this recognition of complexity, have come new efforts at explanation.

There are now two major propositions in the literature which seek to explain the changing character of the gender gap. The convergence theory argues that as the life experiences of women become more similar to those of men then they are more likely to vote like men. So, as younger women who participate in the paid labour market and who are more highly educated than previous generations of women reach voting age, they will come to vote in a similar manner to their male counterparts.

In contrast to this position is the divergence theory, which suggests that men's and women's preferences will first converge but then will diverge as younger women, socialised with more liberal views than men, particularly in the areas of women's equality, enter the electorate. The hypothesis is that these women are likely to prefer left of centre parties since 'women's' issues and policies tend to be emphasised more by these parties.(42) In both theories, it appears that male voting behaviour is taken to be the norm.

Convergence between men and women on both sides of the political spectrum was evident in Australia up until 1990. Gender differences re-emerged in 1993, and in 1996, in the case of the ALP, the gender difference was maintained. Thus, while a divergence has appeared between the way women and men vote, this is not in line with the predictions of the divergence thesis, since women have returned to being more right-of-centre in their vote than men, rather than becoming more left-of-centre. In all of this, the overall swing in each election should also be kept in mind.

These findings focus solely on vote. However, the gender gap has also been used to refer to a pattern that suggests women are more 'progressive', 'liberal' or 'left' with respect to social issues, women's issues, the environment and foreign policy. Briefly, the explanations put forward for such a trend include the proposition that women may embody an 'ethic of caring' which results in sympathy for the disadvantaged, anti-military stances and the like. Others argue that these values are the result of political socialisation, that women are taught to be cooperative, or that younger women are more liberal with respect to newer issues such as equality between the sexes.

Recent Australian research indicates that there are few differences in the attitudes of women and men on economic issues, while with respect to social issues (such as the death penalty and the environment) there are only small gender differences, with women displaying slightly more progressive views in this regard. However it is with respect to women's issues that the greatest gender differences occur. More women than men indicated that changes in equal opportunities for women had not gone far enough, while more women than men also thought there should be increased opportunities for women in business and industry.(43)

In conclusion, these researchers argue that women are more likely than men to endorse policies designed to further women's equality. While it is parties of the left that have tended to champion women's rights to economic equality (in the labour market), it is not clear that these 'women's issues' take priority over economic and social issues such as employment, taxation and health expenditure when it comes to choice of party support.

American analysts suggest that party strategists need to acquire an understanding of women's votes that goes far beyond simplistic notions of a gender gap.(44) Women's interests are not identical to men's but neither are women's interests identical to each other. Differences between women are often as diverse as those between women and men. Furthermore, to argue that women voters should be taken more seriously is not to suggest that shifts in men's voting behaviour, for example their defection from the ALP in 1996, should not be taken seriously. The competition should not be seen as one of winning women's votes at the expense of men's or vice versa, but rather as competition between the parties to catch as many votes as possible from both sexes.

Contemporary party systems are a product of diverse historical processes, but in the main, groups based on social class, religion, language, ethnicity and region became the primary building blocks for the party political system in most countries, including Australia. Once established, these party systems were expected to absorb new social cleavages. Gender was regarded as secondary, cutting across the primary divisions and, because in many countries women did not get the vote until after the modern party system was established, gender issues were drawn into the existing electoral framework.(45) More recently however, new cleavages have generated new parties, particularly in the case of the environmental movement and, in some countries, the women's movement has resulted in the evolution of women's parties (Iceland is most famous for this, although a women's party has emerged in Australia and, in 1994, women threatened to form a women's party in Sweden).

It is not so surprising perhaps, that the ALP in Australia has been less able to attract women, for it came into existence to represent the labour movement in the political arena. In these early days, few women were union members and the labour movement did not always encourage female membership or support women's demands for equal access to work and wages. Calls of solidarity invoking the rhetoric of mateship were very exclusive of women. Thus, perhaps ironically, the formally egalitarian political party had its roots in a masculinised political tradition. Women's mass entry into the paid labour force since the mid 1960s has not been replicated by equal increases in their trade union membership or representation in the labour movement's hierarchies.

In contrast, women's concerns at the turn of the century, such as 'maternal' ideas of citizenship and temperance, fitted easily with a conservative ideology. The continuing emphasis on women's domestic responsibilities sat well with many women's views of themselves.

The women's movement in Australia has been important in politicising women's issues, encouraging more women to participate in politics and in drawing attention to the need for parties across the political spectrum to offer more explicit policies which address equality for women. However, the academic 'jury' is still out as to the impact feminism has had on gender differences in voting behaviour.

Finally, several points need to be made:

  • Care should be taken in terms of how women's conservatism is perceived. One American analyst has suggested that women voters are more risk-averse, which may be interpreted as averse to change.(46) In a literal sense this equates with conservatism, whereby women want to conserve what it is they have. In addition, the international literature suggests that women are more risk-averse when it comes to issues of war, defence spending and the environment, while they are more progressive on issues of women's equality. Why this has not been translated into partisan support for parties of the left-of-centre remains an issue for party strategists
  • When the gap around a particular issue, for example employment, is not substantively significant it becomes difficult for political parties to design policies to exploit such a gender difference. However, this does not mean gendered perspectives on policy development are not useful. Rather, further questions need to be asked if the reasons why women and men display similar attitudes to issues but vote differently are to be better understood
  • It is important to recognise that gender is but one of a number of social cleavages that influence political attitudes, social values, electoral behaviour and partisan loyalties. However, it should not be ignored as a fracture, either in its own right, or in the way it intersects with others. Perhaps it will never be possible to predict how women will vote as compared to men, or compared to other women. Such choices are contingent on many other factors. This dilemma offers a challenge to political parties to think creatively about working families in all their varieties, in order to identify interests and to develop issues and policies that will attract both women and men and, as such, become the ultimate 'catch-all' party.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that the gender gap is a somewhat elusive phenomenon. But, in this day and age of decreasing party identification and 'tweedledum and tweedledee' politics, this is not to say gender differences are fickle or irrelevant. Rather, like the electorate it reflects, the influence of gender on voting is subtle and complex.

Appendix: House of Representatives Elections 1987-96

Two Party Preferred Vote

Election                                       ALP                  Liberal/
                                                            National Parties 
                                                 %                         % 
1987                                          50.8                      49.2 
1990                                          49.9                      50.1 
1993                                          51.4                      48.6 
1996                                          46.4                      53.6 

Source: Gerard Newman, Federal Election Results 1949-96, Background Paper no. 1 1996-97, Canberra: Parliamentary Research Service, 1996.

Endnotes

  1. Christian Leithner, 'A Gender Gap in Australia? Commonwealth Elections 1910-96', Australian Journal of Political Science', vol. 32, no. 1, 1997, p. 31.
  2. Leithner, p. 31.
  3. Karen Paget, 'The Gender Gap Mystique', American Prospect, no. 15, Fall, 1993, p. 94.
  4. The number of responses to each of the surveys is approximately 1 500 people, selected randomly.
  5. Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, A Woman's Place, 2nd ed., Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1993, p. 2.
  6. Sawer and Simms, p. 4.
  7. see for example S M Lipset, Political Man, Heinemann, London,1960; C Burns, Parties and People, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1961; M Curtis, Comparative Government and Politics: An Introductory Essay in Political Science, Harper and Row, New York, 1968.
  8. M Duverger, 1955, The Political Role of Women, UNESCO, Paris.
  9. Murray Goot and Elizabeth Reid, Women and Voting Studies: Mindless Matrons or Sexist Scientism?, Sage, London, 1975, p. 5.
  10. Bernadette Hayes and Clive Bean, 'Political Attitudes and Partisanship Among Australian Couples: Do Wives Matter?', Women and Politics, vol. 14, no. 1, 1994, pp. 53-82.
  11. Goot and Reid, p. 7.
  12. Don Aitkin, Stability and Change in Australian Politics, 2nd edn., Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1982, p. 49.
  13. Aitkin, p. 115.
  14. Aitkin, pp. 307, 50.
  15. Leithner, p. 33.
  16. Leithner, p. 34-36.
  17. Andrew Robb, 'The Liberal Party Campaign', in Clive Bean et al, The Politics of Retribution: the 1996 Federal Election, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp. 34-41.
  18. Senator Ryan cited in Sawer and Simms, p. 39.
  19. Patty Renfrow, 'The Gender Gap in the 1993', Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 29, Special Issue, 1994, p. 122. Renfrow uses the 1993 Australian Election Survey data in her analysis.
  20. Elaine Thompson, 'Election 1996', Current Affairs Bulletin, Feb/March, 1996, pp. 4-12.
  21. Renfrow, p. 128.
  22. Ian McAllister and Clive Bean, 'Long Term Electoral Trends and the 1996 Election', in Clive Bean et al, The Politics of Retribution: the 1996 Federal Election, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp. 173-189.
  23. McAllister and Bean, footnote 5, p. 244.
  24. The difference was significant at a confidence level of 95 per cent.
  25. Aitkin, p. 329-330.
  26. Renfrow, pp. 122-123.
  27. However, because the sample sizes for each group were so small, the gaps were not significant.
  28. Ian Henderson, 'ALP dispels gender-gap at poll', The Australian, 1997, p. 3.
  29. Robb, 1997, p. 41.
  30. Andrew Robb, 'Is there a gender gap in Australia?', in Marian Simms, ed., The Paradox of Parties, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1996, p. 131.
  31. Vicky Randall, Women and Politics. An International Perspective, 2nd ed., Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1987, p. 71.
  32. Diane Sainsbury, 'The Politics of Increased Women's Representation: the Swedish Case', in Joni Lovenduski and Pippa Norris eds., Gender and Party Politics, Sage, London, 1993, p. 268.
  33. Pippa Norris, 'Gender Realignment in Comparative Perspective' in M. Simms, ed., The Paradox of Parties, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996, p. 117.
  34. Nancy Walker, 'What we know about women voters in Britain, France and West Germany', in Marianne Githens et al., Different Roles, Different Voices. Women and Politics in the United States and Europe, Harper Collins, New York, p. 66.
  35. Norris, 1996.
  36. Robert Borosage and Stanley Greenberg, 'Why did Clinton Win', American Prospect, 31, March, 1997, pp. 12-22.
  37. Sarah Whitebloom, 'Women: The Tories' Last Hope', The Spectator, 12 April, 1997, pp. 10-11.
  38. Further analysis on the gender gap in the 1997 UK election is forthcoming by Joni Lovenduski in the September 1997 issue of Parliamentary Affairs.
  39. Mark Franklin, Tom Mackie, et al., 1992, Electoral Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 17.
  40. David De Vaus and Ian McAllister, 'The changing politics of women: gender and political alignment in 11 nations', European Journal of Political Research, vol. 17, 1989, pp. 241-269.
  41. Pippa Norris, 'Elections and Political Attitudes', in Marianne Githens et al., Different Roles, Different Voices. Women and Politics in the United States and Europe, Harper Collins, New York, 1994, p. 49.
  42. Renfrow, p. 125.
  43. Renfrow, 1994; David Gow and Patty Renfrow, 'Gender and the Vote in the 1996 Federal Election', Paper Presented to Australasian Political Studies Assocation Conference, October, University of Western Australia, Perth, 1996.
  44. Paget, p. 101.
  45. Norris, 1994, p. 47.
  46. Steven Stark, 'Gap Politics', Atlantic Monthly, vol. 278, no. 1, 1996, pp. 71-80.

 

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