Minding the gap – women’s views of independence in 2014

As we enter the final weeks of the referendum campaign, persuading key groups of voters to back their case becomes ever more important to both the Yes Scotland and the Better Together campaign. Women are one such target group. In fact, some have suggested that women may ‘hold the key’  to the outcome of September’s vote. This is because women are less likely than men to say they will vote Yes. Findings from ScotCen’s 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA), released today at a conference in Edinburgh, underline this point. They show a 12 percentage point gap in the proportion of men and women who support independence.

Of course, women are not a homogenous group, and in fact this ‘gender gap’ is not apparent among all groups in society. In particular, there is no significant difference between the views of male and female graduates, or between the views of men and women aged 65 and older (the age group least likely to support independence). The lack of a ‘gender gap’ among graduates in our latest survey appears to reflect a warming towards independence among women graduates since 2011.

However, if the gender gap is not uniform, it is both persistent (it has been apparent in SSA data ever since the survey began in 1999) and hard to explain. While theories abound, these are not always backed up by analysis of actual empirical data on men and women’s views. In particular, the oft-cited view that Alex Salmond’s manner turns women off independence is rather undermined by the fact that (a) a gender gap in support for independence was apparent even in years when Salmond did not lead the SNP, and (b) there is a gender gap in support for independence even among those men and women who rate Alex Salmond highly. Meanwhile, it does not appear to be the case that women and men have particularly different expectations about the consequences of independence. Nor are women any less likely than men to claim a Scottish identity (something which appears to be necessary, if not sufficient, for supporting Scottish independence).

Where women and men do differ, however, is in their level of certainty about what independence would mean for Scotland. We asked people to say how sure or unsure they were about what would happen to Scotland – either good or bad – if it becomes independent. Overall, more feel uncertain than certain, but women are even less likely to feel certain than men – just 27% of women said they were sure what independence would bring, compared with 37% of men. And certainty makes a difference to people’s willingness to support independence. Among those who expect the economy to benefit from independence and feel sure about what the consequences of independence will be, the vast majority plan to vote Yes. But the figure is significantly lower for those who believe independence will be economically beneficial, but are less certain in their expectations about the consequences. Unsurprisingly then, the significance of the gender gap decreases once differences in men and women’s level of certainty about the consequences of independence are taken into account.

This finding underlines the challenge for the Yes campaign if it is to close the gender gap over the coming weeks. In a campaign characterised by wildly competing claims, it is hard to see how those who are undecided at the moment can be made to feel sure about the precise consequences of their vote before September 18th. Yet these findings suggest that, without addressing the lingering doubts that some women have about the consequences of independence, the gender gap may prove very difficult to close.

Topics: How Scotland should be governed, Expectations of constitutional change, 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.