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Gender gap and beyond: Are women the key to a Conservative majority?

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Elisabeth Gidengil, McGill University
Guest Contributor

The term “gender gap” became a staple of political commentary following the 1980 United States presidential election. In that election, women were much less likely than men to vote for Ronald Reagan. The term is now used to refer to any differences in the political preferences and political behaviour of women and men. Gender gaps are one reason why the Conservatives have still not been able to break out of minority territory. In the 2008 federal election, women were less likely than men to vote Conservative and the five-point difference could well have been enough to deny them a majority.

This sex difference in support for the party of the right isn’t something new. Men were much more likely than women to vote for the new Reform party in the 1993 election: outside Quebec, the gender gap in Reform voting was 11 points. The Reform vote edged up in the 1997 election among both women and men, but the gender gap held remarkably steady at 11 points. And so it remained even when Reform re-made itself as the Canadian Alliance. Lack of appeal to women was a major factor preventing an Alliance breakthrough in the 2000 election, paving the way for the merger of the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives to form the new Conservative Party.

Underpinning these sex differences in vote choice are differences in values and attitudes.

Women are more likely than men to favour a strong role for government and they are readier to support social programmes to help those in need. They tend to be more "dovish" than Canadian men on military matters and more opposed to the death penalty. They are also more tolerant of new lifestyles and changing values, especially when it comes to same-sex marriage.

These differences are reflected in a gender gap on the left as well: women are more likely than men to vote NDP. The gap was 6 points in 2008. That said, many more Canadian women vote Conservative than vote NDP. This underlines an important point. The differences between women and men are just tendencies. There are lots of men who would put strengthening social programmes ahead of reducing taxes and lots of women who are ardent tax cutters, even if that means weakening the social safety net. There are hawkish women and dovish men, men who adamantly oppose the death penalty and women who fervently advocate its return. Women can’t be expected to possess a monolithic set of political preferences, any more than Westerners or Quebeckers can.

This is why it’s wrong-headed to expect women to vote as a solid bloc. The failure of such a vote to appear in the 1993 election (when the progressive Conservatives and the NDP both had female leaders) pushed women and their concerns into the background and this is where they have mostly remained.

The search for an elusive “women’s vote” misses the point: sex differences in political preferences and vote choices don’t have to be dramatically different to have a significant impact on election outcomes, especially in tight races. The Conservatives have had some success in attracting women to the right. They fare particularly well among women who are more religious and women who are have more traditional views about gender roles and sexual orientation. There are not enough of these women, though, to guarantee the party a majority. The Conservatives are still dogged by the perception that they have a “hidden agenda” and are a threat to Canada’s social programmes. Shaking that perception may be their biggest challenge when it comes to winning more votes from women.

Dr. Elisabeth Gidengil is Hiram Mills Professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and Director of the inter-university Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. Email: elisabeth.gidengil@mcgill.ca

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