Election results are frequently broken down along socio-demographic lines, allowing for an analysis of which groups in a society support which political parties. One of the more common divisions analyzed is the difference in vote choice between men and women, a phenomenon referred to as a gender gap. Such a gender gap has long been observed in Canadian federal elections, but in the most recent three elections this gap has shifted in terms of where it falls on an ideological spectrum, and also in its causes. Canada’s current electoral gender gap is the result of gender-specific differences in values and attitudes among voters. Analysis of the 1993, 1997 and 2000 federal elections shows a growing gender gap that situates women not to the right where they have traditionally been oriented but to the left of their male counterparts. Two different explanations are frequently espoused for the causes of this gap, a structural/situational analysis and a values/attitudes argument. I will examine both of these explanatory theories and illustrate how the first fails to sufficiently describe the current gender gap in Canada and how the second accounts for the differences. Lastly, I will discuss how the affected political parties have responded, or more frequently, failed to respond, to this issue.
Gender gaps have traditionally been construed to have women situated ideologically to the right of men. “The early orthodoxy in the political science literature concerning gender and voting in western societies was that while differences in voting patterns were modest, they did tend to follow a particular pattern: women were more likely than men to vote for centre-right parties” (Erickson and O’Neil, p. 373). This traditional view of the gender gap pointed out two main characteristics, a relatively insignificant difference in vote choice between men and women, and a slight tendency towards supporting more rightwing political parties among women. Neither of these characteristics holds true in analysis of data from Canada’s most recent federal elections, and their absence suggests a new type of gender gap must be present, one that I will, in order to be consistent with the available literature, refer to as a modern gender gap .
In order to fully understand Canada’s modern gander gap it is necessary to examine the pattern that has emerged from the federal elections that occurred in 1993, 1997 and most recently in 2000. “The 1993 federal election witnessed the emergence of a significant gender gap in support for the new party of the right: women were much less likely than men to vote Reform, a trend that continued in the 1997 federal election… and the gender gap in support persisted in the 2000 federal election” (Blais et. al. P. 1). In essence then, women voters in the past three elections have been less likely than men to vote for the Reform party (or as it is now called, Alliance), and instead have shifted their support away from the right. This shift away from the right is one of the most important aspects of Canada’s modern gender gap and it is paralleled by a movement towards the left.
Women voters in Canada in recent elections have been considerably more inclined to support leftist parties. “In the 1997 election, a gender gap also opened up on the left and it, too, appeared again in the 2000 election. In both 1997 and 2000, women were more likely than men to opt for the NDP, the traditional party of the left” (Blais et al, p. 1). This tendency of women to vote for parties on the left has also been observed by Erickson and O’Neil who say “women appear to have gone from voting in a similar manner to men to being much more likely to vote for parties on the left” (p. 374). The statistics from the 2000 election speak strongly in support of this trend. In 2000, support for the centrist liberal party was equal between men and women at 41 percent. Support for the Alliance party was 38 percent among men but only 27 percent among women, for a difference of 9 percent. NDP support was also divided down gender lines, with the party winning support from 15 percent of women voters and only 9 percent of men, a difference of 6 percent . This increased support for the left is the other half of Canada’s modern gender gap, which can clearly be seen as a two-fold shift, with women withdrawing their support for parties on the right not in favour of more centrist parties, but in fact all the way across the political spectrum to the party on the left. Given this pattern however, we still must ask what has caused this shift in voting patterns among Canadian women.
Two different and opposing explanatory theories for the modern gender gap are frequently put forth: a structural/situational view and a values/attitudes view. The first of these two theories I will examine is the structural/situational explanation. According to this view,
the modern gender gap is thought to be a consequence of the changes in gender roles characteristic of postindustrial societies. Changes such as the extraordinary growth in women’s labour force participation and the increase in women’s level of education could contribute to the more leftwing voting preferences among women when combined with factors such as the occupational segregation, lower pay rates and higher levels of public sector employment that women experience compared to men (Erickson and O’Neil, p. 375).
Women in our society then, could vote on the basis of situational factors such as education and a high level of employment in the public sector. Another argument to this effect is the welfare state dismantlement hypothesis, which focuses primarily on women’s relationship with the structures and institutions of government.
According to the welfare state dismantlement hypothesis… women should be more supportive than men of the government’s role in providing a ‘social safety net’ and more opposed to policies that threaten it. The ‘feminization of poverty’ means that women are more likely than men to need the social safety net provided by the welfare state (Blais et. al., p. 2).
Women then would support leftist parties because in doing so they would be ensuring the continued strength of government social programs on which they rely. The facts presented in this view are frequently undeniable. Women do tend to be situated within society differently than men and also often have different relationships to the structures of government, especially in terms of the social safety net upon which they are more likely to have to rely. Yet, even given the apparent accuracy of this view, it fundamentally does not explain Canada’s modern gender gap.
Analyses of electoral results from the elections in 1993, 1997 and 2000 show that the cause of the gender gap is not women’s different place in society or reliance on government structures. “The evidence… suggests that… structural factors cannot account for the gender gap we have witnessed. After structural controls are introduced, the sizes of the gender coefficients… are, if anything, greater” (Erickson and O’Neil, p. 383). This analysis shows that even if only women who are structurally and situationaly similar to their male counterparts are examined, the gender gap persists. Blais et. al. report identical findings in their research, saying, “If the welfare state dismantlement thesis explained the gender gap in support for the welfare state, we would expect the gap to disappear once we control for income difference… and income level clearly makes less difference to women’s opinions than it does to men’s” (p. 6). In other words, women do not only support the welfare state, and thus the leftwing parties who emphasize its maintenance, because they are reliant on it, but actually do so regardless of their personal wealth. This tendency is suggestive of another theory for the cause of Canada’s gender gap, namely, that women vote differently from men because the values and attitudes they express in doing so are actually different.
There is considerable evidence to support the notion that women and men have different values and attitudinal stances. Blais et al. describe this difference by looking at the different moral imperatives that compel each sex towards their value formation. They say,
Where the moral imperative for men took the form of an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment, the moral imperative for women appeared as an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the real and recognizable trouble of this world… Applied to the realm of politics, this contrast in moral reasoning suggests that women will be more skeptical of market solutions than men and will be more willing to endorse government intervention on behalf of the needy (p. 3).
In other words, women have a different primary concern or focus towards the state of their society, from which arises differences in values and attitudes that can be expressed politically. Other researchers who have examined this topic have expressed very similar findings. Conover finds that women “are more committed than men to the value of equality; they evidence less symbolic racism than men, and they are considerably more liberal than men” (p. 1001). She goes on to conclude that “the most critical variant of the gender gap… is the growing disparity in the political attitudes of men and women” (p. 986). It seems very likely then that Canada’s modern gender gap could in fact be the result of differing values and attitudes between men and women and indeed the evidence speaks loudly in support of such a conclusion.
Relying once again on the statistical analysis of vote choice from the 2000 election, Erickson and O’Neil conclude that
Religiosity, class, age, and education were all significantly related to leftwing voting, but the size of the gender gap was seemingly unrelated to their effects. On the other hand, the addition… of cultural factors including measures of post-materialism, support for the women’s movement, support for abortion, and an index of attitudes to government did result in a reduction of the gender coefficient by half… The transformation in values is a more important element in the emergence of the modern gender gap than are social/structural factors (p. 375).
While women may tend to hold different places in society than men, it is fundamentally not the role they play, but rather the values that they hold that have caused women in Canada’s three most recent federal elections to shift dramatically to the left of men. While some of these values may arise, for some women, from their societal situation, it is clear that even women who are situated similarly to men can hold a different set of values that provide the impetus for their political convictions. A gender gap that has its foundations in value difference seems very likely to be one that will persist, and should thus represent an important issue in need of addressing by the affected political parties.
The NDP and Alliance parties are both explicitly impacted by Canada’s modern gender gap and yet have both addressed it very unevenly. The NDP has attempted to capitalize on their recent attractiveness to women voters by highlighting women’s issues in their campaigns. On their party website (www.ndp.ca) one of the issues they focus on is what they term their “Agenda for Women’s Equality.” They describe in considerable depth both the ways in which equality of the sexes has yet to be attained, as well as their specific plans for rectifying this inequality. The Alliance, however, seems not to acknowledge the gender gap or how it impacts their support levels. An extensive search of their party website (www.canadianalliance.ca) reveals not only no mention of the gender gap in electoral support, but no mention of gender or women’s issues whatsoever. “There is every reason to believe that the Alliance party is writing off groups of women voter in precisely the same way the Republican party has” (Young, p. 202). The NDP, who stand to gain support from the gender gap have modified their stance in order to increase its attractiveness for women voter, but the Alliance party appears to feel that the gender gap is not an issue on which they ought even to adopt a stance at all. For them, Young’s conclusion that “gender gaps in voting intentions have only rarely been of sufficient magnitude to affect party behavior” seems very apt indeed. Despite what has developed into a quite sizable gender gap, the Canadian Alliance seems to be ignoring it all together.
Gender-based analysis of the 1993, 1997 and 2000 federal elections in Canada reveals a modern gender gap both on the right, where women have been withdrawing their support, and on the left, where women have increased their support. While there is a convincing argument in support of the theory that emphasizes structural and situational differences between men and women to explain their voting patterns, this theory is fundamentally unsupported by the bulk of available quantitative evidence, which points instead towards a gender gap whose foundations lie in the different political values and attitudes held by men and women. While the NDP has attempted to capitalize on this newfound support from women by putting women’s equality at the forefront of their agenda, the Alliance party has ignored the gender gap and its implications to their support base all together. This divergence in values shows no sign of ending any time soon, and the gender gap in Canada has the potential to become a political chasm, dividing men and women on the basis of their values and beliefs as to the very nature of the society we should be constructing as we move into the new millenium.
Submitted to Dr. Barbara O'Neil, Poli345 UBC Department of Political Science November 6, 2003
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