Why women may hold the key to September 18th

Tonight BBC2 Scotland airs a referendum documentary ‘What Women Want’ that looks at the gender gap in attitudes to independence. Rachel Ormston, who appears in the programme, looks as the current state of the gap – and why it exists.

The gap between men and women in their level of support for independence is well documented. ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, which has asked people their views of independence since 1999, shows that women have long been six or seven percentage points less likely than men to support it. A quick review of 19 opinion polls conducted between the start of 2014 and mid-April indicates that the gender gap on September 18th may well be bigger still. Women were, on average, 13 percentage points less likely than men to indicate they will vote Yes.

And the gender gap matters. If we ignore those who do not yet know how they will vote, then Yes Scotland appear within a hair’s breadth of persuading a majority of men to support independence – across recent opinion polls an average of 48% of men indicated they would vote Yes. But just 37% of women who have made up their minds say they plan to do the same. Women account for 52% of the Scottish population aged 16 and over, so it is clear from these figures that unless the Yes campaign can persuade women to change their views in substantial numbers, a majority yes vote is likely to remain out of reach.

However, and perhaps fortunately for Yes Scotland, what polling figures also show is that women are less likely to have made up their minds about how they will vote in September. On average across the most recent opinion polls around one in five women say they remain undecided, compared with around one in eight men.

The SNP are clearly aware of both the need and the challenge of persuading Scotland’s women to back a Yes vote. Headline grabbing commitments to childcare in an independent Scotland have been widely interpreted as attempts to woo women voters. However, a quick look at men and women’s policy priorities calls into question the notion that there is necessarily any great gender divide in the kinds of issues that exercise men and women. When asked to choose what area they think should be the Scottish Government’s highest priority, growing the economy has been the top issue chosen by both men and women in recent years.

Scottish Social Attitudes data suggest that it is women’s greater uncertainty about the likely impact of independence on Scotland’s economy that largely explains their more lukewarm response to independence. For women, as for men, it is the economy that looks likely to dominate decision-making. Of course, the prospect of free childcare may well inform the views of some mothers (and fathers) about the likely impact of independence on their personal economic fortunes. But it is far from obvious that childcare will be the only or main economic issue most women consider.

Topics: Policy issues, The Scottish independence referendum

About the author

Rachel Ormston is a Senior Research Director at ScotCen Social Research and co-director of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey. She regularly writes and presents on social and political attitudes and has a particular interest in attitudes to devolution and independence in Scotland.