The debate over Scotland’s future: do women care?

What does the gender gap in attitudes towards independence tell us about Scottish women, their political attitudes and changing roles in society? This piece looks back to Gerry Hassan's article 'Mind the Gap' and gives a very different verdict.

Ailsa McKay
8 April 2013

In considering the apparent gender gap on the independence question political pundits have, by way of explanation, drawn attention to the tendency for women to prefer the ‘status quo’.  The voting behaviour of women is believed to be informed primarily by a cautious and risk-averse approach to change. This ‘conservatism’ explains the latest opinion polls indicating women’s lack of support for independence.

Does this lack of support really indicate that women are unduly cautious when it comes to considering Scotland’s future?  Or is it a reflection of, as Gerry Hassan refers to in his piece 'Mind the Gap', a combination of conservatism amongst women and a ‘fluid, flexible attitude which isn’t consistently pro-independence, but nor is it firmly or passionately pro-union.’ Thus women can swing either way – they simply need to be convinced. In particular they will be swayed, according to Hassan, by both ‘practical and personal financial factors’. 

Can we take from this that women voters are fickle? Perhaps unconcerned with matters relating to Scotland’s constitutional future, but rather focused exclusively on matters relating to their own economic welfare, and that of their families, in the immediate term?  Do women care about the debate over Scottish independence? 

No, women voters are not fickle, but yes they remain largely undecided. Yes, women are concerned about what independence will mean for them and their families on a whole range of practical and personal financial levels but that does not mean they do not care about the wider constitutional issues. In fact it is precisely because women ‘care’ that they remain undecided. 

The debate thus far has in a sense been alien to most women, especially in the context of the current economic climate. Although much progress has been made in recent decades in promoting greater gender equality, at least with respect to ‘equality of opportunity’ within the labour market, the same cannot be said of change in the domestic economy. This asymmetric nature of change has resulted in significant gains for women in the world of work – equal pay legislation, improved maternity provision and flexible working practices, greater career opportunities – but progress towards actual gender equality has been hampered by a lack of commensurate change in the household. Persistent patterns of gender-based divisions of labour within the household mean women continue to perform the majority of household determined duties and tasks, including – most significantly – childcare. Thus, it is precisely because women do care that they have less time and resources to commit to other activities. 

However, it is not the case that women remain ‘tied to the kitchen sink’ with no time left for political activism – far from it.  The point being made is that women and men occupy very different spaces in advanced capitalist economies and these ‘spaces’ serve to influence their access, participation and voice in political life.  However, whilst the space they occupy may restrict and limit their ability to participate, women remain resourceful in finding alternative spaces to organise, influence and ensure their voices are heard.

In considering the context in which the current debate on Scotland’s future is taking place, it would seem however that those alternative spaces are being curtailed. The position of women in the Scottish economy has left them extremely vulnerable to the impact of economic recession. Both as workers in the public sector and as users of public services women have been hit hardest by the level and range of public sector spending cuts imposed as a result of a favoured austerity agenda. 

Women’s unemployment in Scotland has almost doubled over the period from 2007 to 2012. Over the same period a rise in the number of part time jobs against a fall in full time jobs amongst women indicates that women may be ‘underemployed’ in a stagnating economy. In addition, reform to the welfare system has resulted in wide ranging reductions in benefits, an increase in pension contributions and an increase in the age at which pensions can be drawn. This comes on top of a two-year wage freeze for the majority of workers in the public sector in Scotland.  So the terms and conditions of public sector workers, the majority of whom are women in Scotland, are deteriorating. Furthermore, as the public sector continues to contract, a consequence of increasing austerity measures, more women will lose their jobs and at the same time will find their eligibility and access to social security payments significantly restricted. 

Furthermore, women’s position within the labour market is more precarious, primarily because they work flexibly, are more likely to be in temporary or part-time employment and/or are segregated in low-pay sectors and occupations. Women, therefore, are less likely to have built up any savings, resulting in less resilience to tough weather economic conditions and putting them, and their families, at greater risk of increased poverty. 

The combined effect has been to expose women to greater risks of job losses, real reductions in income over the longer term and managing increased pressures on limited household budgets. Reductions in spending on state supported care services do not imply a subsequent reduction in demand for those services but rather a transfer of responsibility from the public to the private sector. With no guarantee that the private sector will pick up the slack, and given what we know about the gendered division of labour within households, it is safe to assume that women will absorb this activity. Thus women will find that their opportunities for formal labour market participation are further restricted due to the demands placed on their time performing necessary work at home, without pay.  

Thus the resources and time women have available to them is being further squeezed with obvious consequences in terms of ability and ‘space’ to engage in political debate with little immediate outcome that has reference to their own lives.

I would conclude therefore that the apparent lack of support women are demonstrating for independence is not because they are displaying a preference for the status quo. It would be surprising if that were the case, when we consider the status quo. Rather, as Gerry Hassan highlights, voices are missing from the debate and recognising that is a start. Both sides of the political divide need to take stock and engage those missing voices – in particular women. And in doing so they would do well to keep in mind that those voices are not disengaged – they are simply getting on with the business of caring for, and managing, our households. This is in itself a key activity in securing Scotland’s economic future, whatever the outcome of the independence referendum. 

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