Why gender still matters in politics

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Brenda O'Neill, University of Calgary
Guest Contributor

It’s safe to say that the issue of ‘women in politics’ no longer generates the attention that it once did. The 1984 leaders’ debate between John Turner (Liberal), Brian Mulroney (Progressive Conservative) and Ed Broadbent (New Democratic Party) on such issues as pay equity, affirmative action, abortion and child care seems unlikely to be repeated in the near future. Women’s issues simply do not generate this level of attention. An exception can be the appearance of women running for high political office – Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin most recently – but even this is no guarantee that coverage of their campaigns will focus on substance over style.

But lack of attention to these issues doesn’t mean that they are irrelevant. These issues are important because gender remains an important element for understanding contemporary politics. It matters because despite the narrowing of many differences between women and men, for example in their educational, income and occupational statuses, gaps remain. And women and men continue to exhibit behavioural and attitudinal political differences that defy simple explanation.

When I’ve examined gender gaps in voting, for example, I’ve found evidence that women and men do not often make the same choices, with gender gaps varying over time and across countries.

The current trend in Canada is for men to lend greater support than women to conservative parties. Some of this difference is due to level differences in factors that help explain vote choices: women continue to earn less income than men ($14,900 less on average in 2003 according to Statistics Canada), for example, which pushes their votes towards parties that favour income redistribution policies over tax concessions.  But such structural differences account for less of the gender gap than attitudinal and value differences. Small differences in attitudes, such as the appropriate role for governments, and in values – religion and feminism are two that I have examined – help explain differences in women’s and men’s vote choices.  Even if women and men had similar incomes and held similar jobs, it is unlikely that gender gaps in voting would disappear.

How women and men translate stocks of social capital – Robert Putnam’s concept of social networks and trust – into political engagement also differs. Where one volunteers – women tend to focus on religious volunteering and men on sports and professional associations – matters for the degree to which this volunteering is translated into political activity. To put it simply, women’s social capital just isn’t as effective as generating membership in political parties or running for office. This isn’t to say that it isn’t effective in doing other things but what it doesn’t do is facilitate equivalent levels of political activity. As long as women and men continue to focus their time and effort on different activities and organizations, political differences will continue.

What is less clear is why these differences persist. A fruitful line of investigation focuses on political socialization, that is, how young girls and boys learn about politics and, perhaps more importantly, about where and how women and men fit into the political system. A recent study in the US by Lawless and Fox,for example, reveals different levels of political ambition among women and men within the same occupational categories, a finding that throws water on the argument suggesting that gender gaps will disappear once structural gaps are eliminated, and which highlights the importance of learning that takes place during childhood.1

Gender matters in politics not because women and men are fundamentally different but rather because of the subtle differences between them. And it doesn’t look like these are likely to disappear anytime soon.

Dr. Brenda O’Neill is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta. Email:

1Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox, It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).


Equity Matters


Equity Matters