Hilde Coffé is Professor in Politics in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.

As we approach the 2019 General Election in the UK, voters are eagerly reviewing party manifestos and headlines to help determine their decision on polling day. Within decision-making processes, voters’ gender - and gendered systems – play an important role. The extent to which and the way that gender affects party choice has however changed over time and differs between countries.

A modern gender gap in party choice

Whereas women were disproportionately supporting conservative parties in the period after enfranchisement, empirical evidence has highlighted a change since the 1980s with women being more supportive of the left-wing parties compared with men (e.g. Giger 2009; Inglehart and Norris 2003; Knutsen 2001; Manza and Brooks 1998).

While cross-national differences in the gendered voting patterns exist, women’s greater likelihood of favouring left-wing parties is seen as a common feature of the political landscape in many post-industrialised democracies (Box-Stoffensmeier et al. 2004). A wide variety of explanations have been suggested for this so-called modern gender gap (Inglehart and Norris 2000).

One of the most frequently suggested explanations is women’s participation in the paid labour force. Being active in the paid workforce exposes women to gender (pay) inequalities which may increase their likelihood of supporting left-wing parties which are known as advocates of greater equalities. Working women are also expected to be more likely to support public spending on child and elderly care - duties which were traditionally done by unpaid female work (Iversen and Rosenbluth 2006). Furthermore, women’s greater likelihood of working in the public sector makes them more dependent on the expansion of the welfare state and thus more likely to be supportive of left-wing parties (Knutsen 2001).

Further explanations for the (move towards) the modern gender gap in party choice include the growth of women’s educational opportunities, increasing levels of poverty among women, and secularisation. Women’s growing educational opportunities have encouraged more liberal attitudes which increase the likelihood of leaning leftwards politically (Inglehart and Norris 2000).

Rising levels of poverty among women, partly as a result of increasing levels of divorce and with women facing more economic decline after divorce than men (Peterson 1996; Poortman 2000), makes women also more inclined to be dependent on, and thus more supportive of, the welfare state typically advocated by left-wing parties.

Finally, women’s higher levels of religiosity traditionally explained their greater support for conservative and religious parties than men (De Vaus and McAllister 1987). Yet, the process of secularisation has eroded the link between church and party, which increased women’s likelihood of voting for parties other than religious and conservative ones, including left-wing parties.

A radical right populist gender gap

A more recent gender gap in voting patterns is the gap in radical right populist voting, with men being more supportive of radical right populist parties than women (e.g. Coffé 2018; Givens 2004; Gidengil et al. 2005; Fontana et al. 2006; Harteveld and Ivarsflaten 2018; Harteveld et al. 2015; Immerzeel et al. 2015; Rippeyoung 2007; Spierings and Zaslove 2015).

While research has been successful in explaining the modern gap introduced above, explaining the radical right populist gender gap has proven more challenging. A common explanation has referred to gender differences in occupational status and related attitudes toward immigrants. The argument goes that in Western societies men are over-represented in manual jobs in blue-collar sectors, the type of jobs that are most threatened by modernisation and globalisation. As a consequence, men are more likely to lose their jobs or to be forced into lower-paying jobs in the new global economy than women (Givens 2004).

Furthermore, it has been suggested that manual workers in blue-collar sectors face the most “competition” from immigrants over not just jobs but also other scarce resources such as housing. This triggers exclusionary reactions because workers experience feelings of threat (Fennema 2005), and it is well known that exclusionary and negative attitudes towards immigrants increase the likelihood of radical right populist voting.

Empirical research has, however, shown that men do not necessarily maintain more negative attitudes toward immigrants or that men are more favourably inclined toward law and order (another main explanation for radical right populist voting) than women (Mayer 2013; Mudde 2007). Yet, women still tend to be underrepresented among the radical right electorate in most countries, suggesting that women are less likely to translate negative attitudes towards immigrants into electoral support for radical right populist parties than men are.

Gender and party choice in the UK

While both the modern and radical right populist gender gaps have been observed across many countries and elections, country - and election - specific differences have been noted.

In the UK, little significant gender gaps in voting behaviour have been found between 1964 and 2015 (Shorrocks 2016), as such, contradicting patterns found in many other post-industrialised societies. In addition, in those years that gender differences did occur, they suggested that women tended to be more likely than men to support the Conservatives over Labour or the Liberals, and more likely than men to support the Liberals over Labour. The 2017 British Election Study, however, showed a tendency of women being less likely to vote Conservatives than men (Green and Prosser 2018).

The flipping of the gender difference in 2017 was partly because of UKIP’s collapse between 2015 and 2017, with mainly men moving back to the Conservatives in 2017 (Green and Prosser 2018). Despite this, UKIP was most popular – both in 2015 and 2017 – among men, confirming a common finding in the literature on gender and radical right populist voting.

In the 2017 elections, women were more supportive of Labour than men. Yet, significant generational differences occurred in party choice patterns in 2017. In particular younger women switched in high numbers to Labour, while mostly older men saw the Conservatives as an attractive option. These significant generational differences confirmed the crucial impact of age in the 2017 general election.

With party choice having a decisive impact on electoral outcomes and policymaking, it is crucial to understand differences in voting patterns between gender groups, and – with each election having its own characteristics and surprises - it will be interesting to see to what extent patterns that occurred in 2017 will be confirmed in this month’s election.


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This blog is part of the IPR 'General Election 2019' blog series. Visit the IPR blog to read more. 

Posted in: Data, politics and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Political ideologies, UK politics


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