Fiona Mackay (University of Edinburgh)
The eminent pollster Professor John Curtice has never struck us as Neanderthal before but, in his Holyrood comment piece this week, he appears to suggest that the reason for the gender gap in attitudes to Scottish independence is that more men than women support independence because it appeals to their primal hunter-gatherer nature. A case, perhaps, of:
‘darlin’, am just awa’ tae bag masel a wee independent state – whit’s fer ma tea?’
As Prof Curtice reports, women continue to be markedly more sceptical about independence than are men.
“Polls conducted during the course of the last month have, on average, reported that just 26 per cent of women back leaving the UK, while no less than 55 per cent are opposed.”
The existence of the gender gap cannot be explained by women having a weaker attachment to Scottish identity, as they are no less likely than men to consider themselves “Scottish, not British”. The issue is that women are more concerned about the practical consequences of independence. And, as Prof Curtice explains:
“at the moment they are also rather less convinced of the practical merits of the proposition.”
However, rather than explain this scepticism as a rational response to imperfect information, Prof Curtice argues that it is because women can’t make up their minds:
“they bring to the topic a greater air of hesitation and uncertainty. They are simply much more likely than men to say that they do not think independence would make much difference either way or that they just do not know what its consequences would be.”
Women polled are more hesitant and uncertain about what the consequences of independence might be; professing a lack of knowledge. Women are less “political” than men and therefore unable to take a “clear view”. In seeking to explain these trends, Prof Curtice goes back to basics: putting it down to psychological (and evolutionary) predispositions. Women are less confident than men and therefore less able to make the leap towards independence:
“ Perhaps in inviting us to step boldly into a bright, but as yet unfamiliar future, the rhetoric of the Yes camp is one that resonates more with the hunter-gatherer, assertive side of our natures rather than our desire for calm and security. And stereotypical though the observation might be, maybe as a result this means its message appeals to fewer women than to their male, more macho counterparts.”
Whereas you might have thought that caution expressed in polling might have been a rational response to uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the potential ramifications of independence. After all, there has been precious little debate to date about the impact of independence on classic “women’s issues” like childcare, the care economy, part-time work and occupational segregation, work-life balance, or women’s equal participation in political and public life. Neither has there been sustained discussion of the pros and cons of different constitutional options for tackling inequalities of income, health, educational achievement or status based on social divisions such as gender, ethnicity and class. And never mind finding answers to questions like an independent Scotland’s place in the world (membership of the EU, NATO and the UN etc), issues about lender of last resort, common currency, division of assets and natural resources, common defence and security and the like.
No, women are fearties because, well, they’re women – and not (cave) men
We’re not sure how serious Prof Curtice actually is, but this is a missed opportunity to think about alternative, more plausible explanations that don’t portray women as deficient men. Or, indeed, men as predisposed to reckless machismo.
First, women are not a lumpen mass. There are significant differences amongst women, and notable similarities between women and men. The differences reported are about aggregate trends. In many cases, the gap between women and men is not all that great. For example, although men are markedly more confident about the positive consequences of independence than are women (37 % versus 25 %), very similar proportions of both women and men report anxiety about going it alone: 48% of women versus 43% of men. Similar proportions of women and men polled (around 1:3) believe that independence will lead to a stronger economy.
Second, it takes a big leap to take these aggregate patterns and attribute them to evolutionary predispositions – hard-wired into the psyche or ordained by the planets. Feminist sociologists and scientists have been debunking populist pseudo-science – or neuro-sexism – for decades (neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s brilliant book Delusions of Gender being the latest critique).
If women are under confident, more hesitant and uncertain, this may be a rational response to the lack of authoritative non-partisan information and analysis available to date in the debate. Women in polls are more likely to admit they lack of knowledge than their male counterparts but this may be explained, in part, by the well-documented propensity of men to overestimate their own competence and women to underplay theirs.
If women report less interest in politics – then this is a puzzle to be explored not an answer in itself. We know that political interest rises when women are more visible. Despite the relatively high levels of female politicians in the Scottish parliament- and Nicola Sturgeon’s prominent role as the SNP champion of independence- the face of Scottish politics remains relatively ‘male, pale and stale’. Whilst some women’s voices have been heard (after protests), the default position for platforms and panels debating constitutional futures remains male-dominated. And little sustained effort has been made as yet to show the relevance of constitutional change to women’s lives or to reflect their diverse perspectives (Women for Independence group is an honourable exception).
Women are not the problem. The question is not why can’t a Scots woman be more like a (cave) man? The question is how do we generate honest, relevant and well-informed discussion about what sort of Scotland we want, and what difference constitutional change might make? We need more information, more reasoned debate, and the inclusion of women’s voices and perspectives from both sides of the argument (and all shades in between). That’s why a group of feminist academics, journalists, trade unionists and civil society groups have come together to organise a series of public seminars and blog discussions entitled Constitutional Futures: Gender Equality Matters in a New Scotland in order to provide a space for debate and dialogue in the run up to the 2014 referendum campaign.