International Women’s Day and what the polls tell us. ‘Building back better’ might need a feminist version too.

8 Mar

Today marks International Women’s Day (IWD), which I confess I have a degree of cynicism about. Like many Conservatives, I am generally wary of anything related to identity politics. It is not as empowering as some of its proponents seem to think.

Case in point: several years ago I was asked to be on a debating panel. When I replied that I wasn’t available that day, the producer replied: “do you know any other right-leaning women?” I immediately realised what box I sat in: right-wing, tick, woman, tick. But I just want to be me first and foremost.

So you can understand my wariness around a “woman’s day”, which can sometimes treat us as something of a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same thing. That or it becomes a PR exercise more than anything (as I am writing this I spot a shop offering a IWD discount).

Nonetheless there are clearly many issues that directly impact women, and IWD at least gives us a chance to pause and reflect on where feminism must go next. The very name – “international” women’s day – should give us a clue of where our efforts are most needed, as there are still unbelievably terrible stories of gender inequality in the news.

From maternal mortality rates (every day in 2017, around 810 women died from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth), to women in Saudi Arabia only being allowed to drive from 2018 to the recent murder of three female journalists by gunmen in Afghanistan, these are all reminders of our duty to do more internationally.

There is a huge amount to say on feminism in 2021 – and the aforementioned issues, which deserve books, never mind articles written about them. But this week ConservativeHome will be examining these issues through more of an electoral/ domestic lens; from examining candidate selection to what policies women want, to this piece, which will look at polling and how it can help Conservatives reach more women at future general elections.

Ostensibly it looks like there is no big difference between how men and women vote, judging from the last election in 2019. YouGov found that 46 per cent of men voted Conservative versus 44 per cent for women. But the gender gap actually becomes quite pronounced when you look at 18-24 year olds. Sixty five per cent of women in this age bracket voted Labour (46 per cent for men) in 2019, and 15 per cent of women voted Conservative (versus 28 per cent for men), which is a dramatic margin.

Going up an age category, to 25-49-year-olds, 45 per cent of women voted Labour and 32 per cent voted Conservative, whereas 40 per cent of men voted Labour, and 35 per cent Conservative. These differences are smaller than those found in 18-24-year-olds, but they could prove significant at future elections. As Stephen Bush, political editor of The New Statesman, recently wrote for The Times, “the party that finds a way to merge its core vote with the growing power of the 30 to 50-year-olds will dominate politics for decades to come.”

So how do politicians engage more with these groups? What do women want (at least, according to polls)? Patrick English, Research Manager at YouGov, levels with me: “Generally speaking, we don’t find huge differences on average between men and women’s opinions on a whole host of topics, including the economy, health, and public policy.” But he does add that there “*might* be something of a gender gap opening regarding the economy versus health.”

In one of YouGov’s latest trackers, 61 per cent of women picked health as one of the most important issues, compared to only 46 per cent of men. He says to watch this space there. He also points out that there are systematic differences that tend to occur in nuclear issues, with women much less favourable to maintaining Trident, or something like it, than men are.

Lastly he tells me that “a much higher percentage of women aren’t sure about (how well) the job the Government is doing than men. This suggests maybe that there are a higher number of women than men open to convincing on the Government’s record to date.” So how could it inspire some more confidence here?

Research from polling agency Ipsos MORI suggests that women need hope more than anything, largely as a result of the pandemic. While men are the immediate victims – being more vulnerable to the virus on aggregate – women have been badly effected by the economic toll.

In 2020, Ipsos MORI found that 33 per cent of women in work said their workplaces had been closed compared with 25 per cent of men, as they “are more likely to work in sectors most affected by the pandemic, such as hospitality, retail and travel”. Currently 140,000 more women than men are on furlough (2.32 million women in total). As a result, 60 per cent of women were finding it hard to stay positive day to day compared with 43 per cent of men.

Furthermore, Ipsos MORI found that 55 per cent of working mums said that they are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day compared 35 per cent of working dads. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that, when balancing working from home and home schooling, mothers were able to do one hour of uninterrupted work for every three hours done by fathers. These stark differences highlight one of the most challenging issues of our time: women still continue to take the brunt of childcare, which has a disproportionate effect on their careers compared to men’s.

While the conservative argument is always that childcare is about personal choice – and indeed it is for many women – there will be others who disagree with this analysis, wanting more support from the Government, their employers or otherwise. Having children may be the biggest factor of all in differences in pay between men and women (as I have written about previously for The Spectator). Add to that the housing crisis (women my own age – I’m 32 – are nowhere near owning), the struggle to “have it all” has become even harder.

As Kully Kaur-Ballagan, Research Director at Ipsos MORI, told me: “The pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities; women have been finding it harder to stay positive day to day, feel they have shouldered more of the childcare responsibilities and continue to be more pessimistic about the economy. As Britain starts to rebuild, ensuring the recovery addresses the issues facing women, such as flexible working, mental health, social care and protection from abuse, will be essential to ensuring that gender equality progresses otherwise there is a risk of rolling back.”

Ipsos MORI’s findings are not limited to the UK, incidentally. In 2020 it found similar patterns across G7 countries, where 73 per cent of women report being afraid of the future compared to 63 per cent of men; 59 per cent have experienced burnout, anxiety or depression, compared to 46 per cent of men, and there were clear concerns around childcare and careers. So many governments are going to have to think about how they do fix what could be called “the burnout gap”.

In the UK, perhaps part of the problem is that we have spent the last four years arguing over Brexit (Brexiteer here, by the way), so much so that we have lost focus on some of the more mundane aspects of people’s lives (childcare, the work-life balance). The pandemic has merely highlighted the challenges that were already there for women.

While the Government has set about an incredibly ambitious “levelling up” programme for “left behind” regions around the country, perhaps it could apply a similar process to some of the issues facing women. It cannot remedy every problem the polling has brought up – such as workplace barriers – but it can do more to do things like fixing housing. This is an issue that is disproportionately affecting the younger age groups heading over to Labour. By all indications from the data, “building back better” might need its own feminist vision too.