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Scotland Decides ’14: why are women wary of independence?

Poll after poll shows Scottish women are considerably less keen on independence than men. Alex Salmond has been reaching out to women voters since the campaign kicked off two years ago. We asked our panel…

The SNP is still struggling to woo women. byronv2, CC BY-SA

Poll after poll shows Scottish women are considerably less keen on independence than men. Alex Salmond has been reaching out to women voters since the campaign kicked off two years ago. We asked our panel about the reasons for the gender gap in the polls.


Jo Armstrong, Professor of Public Policy, University of Glasgow

It might not be that women are more reticent about independence. It may be that the cry for more evidence is coming from women and at the point they get it, they will be just the same as men in their preferences around independence. Wanting more evidence doesn’t necessarily make you more cautious. It does make you more analytical though.

If the hypothesis is that women analyse things differently, it’s unlikely that they would want to see policies promoted only for them. It’s about having policies where they can understand the implications for them and their families, which is perhaps not being communicated well in the political messaging.

I suspect that the issues that interest women are exactly the same as the ones that interest men. I can’t believe that women think that childcare is more important than the economy, jobs, or more important than better services in general.

The idea that you’ll be able to make women change their minds with women-only issues is misguided. It suggests that the political parties still have a poor idea of what equality is really all about.

Women are vastly under-represented in certain parts of the Scottish economy. For example in the Scottish Parliament, only 35% of our MSPs are women; 45 out of 128. The results appear not much better for Scotland’s various public sector boards.

The evidence suggests that the more you have diversity on boards, the better they perform. Board dynamics change and it does appear that diversity (be that women, older or younger representation and members from ethnic minority backgrounds) has a positive impact on company performance.

On the question of positive discrimination, I am certainly in favour of having representation that reflects the economy in which we live and work. There are more women than men in the country, so this should be reflected in boards and the parliament.

Trevor Salmon, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen

Traditionally women were more conservative than men in how they vote. It was said that because the men were in the factories or in the industrial plants, they learned socialist solidarity through being part of the trade unions.

But with women in relation to the Scottish referendum, I don’t think it’s a question of conservatism. I think it’s more about pragmatism. It might sound a bit old-fashioned, but in many cases women are the people that spend the household money. They are the ones that actually see what’s happening to the price of food, clothes, to the economy.

They want to be reassured that independence is going to be better. They are the ones who ask: “What if something happens to my husband’s wage? What if something happens to childcare? “What if something happens to university fees?”

In England, Labour is about ten points ahead of the Conservatives with women. Cameron has a real problem with women. Mostly it’s this argument about the cost of living. Women are more likely to ask the question: “Will we be better off or not in everyday life?”

For this reason, I think the gap between male and female voters is unlikely to narrow. In fact it may increase slightly as more and more people consider the issues carefully.

The trouble with making pledges about what will happen after the referendum is that there’s such a distrust of politicians nowadays. The only promises that either side can make to attract more women are ones where they can make them real – but that’s difficult because one parliament can’t bind the next. More than likely, the SNP will be judged on what it has already done for groups like women – not what it says it will do after the referendum.

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

I don’t agree that women are more pessimistic about the idea of Scottish independence - nor am I convinced that women are a harder sell for the campaign. Whenever I speak to women about this, I find that they are split down the middle.

But the tradition of women not being heard is probably having an influence on what they are prepared to say or on how they are going to vote. Or it might be the case that women are more naturally cautious because of the traditional culture of exclusion.

We have a very low participation level among women in politics. We don’t have enough female role models, women in leadership roles or enough women on senior management teams. This has an impact on women’s confidence levels.

The SNP needs to be careful with its policy announcements that women’s roles aren’t just confined to conceptions of the family – which in any case is a very diverse concept now. Women aren’t just concerned with childcare, education and family-related issues. There needs to be a meaningful engagement with the roles women play across all sectors.

I’m not attracted by the idea of taking affirmative action over women on boards. This introduces an opportunity for people to criticise a woman in a management position, suggesting that she’s only got there because she’s female. This happens. It’s a fact. I would never want to be appointed to a position because someone needed to fill a quota.

There’s not an easy fix here, but the first step is to recognise that we have a problem. We need to start for example by normalising equality in society. This can start with children by reinforcing understandings of equality through childhood and young adulthood. If you show a child how their mum and dad are equal in the home and in employment, that child is going to grow up with a balanced picture of what society is and should be.

The Scottish Government has made a decent start with equal parental rights, but it needs to go further by supporting it properly. When I’ve spoken to men in Scotland about this, many have told me their wives’ employers are much more amenable.

While I think the SNP isn’t too bad on this front, none of the political parties seem able to engage with the fact that a significant culture shift is needed to bring about genuine equality. If the failure to engage with the skills, expertise and experience that women have to offer continues then we have a real problem on our hands.