ConservativeHome.com may be visited by a large number of women but the clear majority of people who leave comments appear to be men. Why is that? We asked the author of the ‘Tory Convert blog’ to speculate. This is her answer. For reasons of her work, Kate Jackson is a pseudonym.
The invitation to write this piece included the assertion: "The Tory blogosphere is even more male-dominated than the party". Discuss. Well, that would seem to be true on the face of it. Tour casually through Conservative blogrolls and you will encounter very few blogs written by women.
But this is not unique to Conservatives. A scan through UK Political Blogs reveals that the blog gender gap crosses party divides. Furthermore, a 2003 US survey of English language blogs found that while bloggers in general tend to be split roughly evenly between women and men, only one in twenty political blogs of determinate sex are written by women. By contrast, twice as many personal-diary-style blogs are written by women than men. The question is, is this something that should be a matter of concern, indicative of disadvantage, or do we just accept that men and women tend sometimes to have different interests?
Of course, as in other spheres of interest, being small in number is not automatically a sign of inherent social disadvantage or discrimination. For example (though probably setting this post up for vehement criticism!), I was bemused that Harvard President Larry Summers’ comments that it’s just possible, from statistical evidence, that on average men might have more innate ability – or at least interest – in science and maths than women, proved to be so controversial. As a physics undergraduate, I was amongst a measly 20% women on my course. The ‘disadvantage’ arguments of those outraged by Summers’ comments – that women face barriers through child-rearing and discouragement from studying science – were demonstrably not true for my peer group of childless teenage females who teachers and admissions tutors had practically begged to do the subject. On the other hand, very few girls at my school enjoyed physics. It seems dishonest to ignore these (on average, and very general) inherent different propensities and interests.
Returning to political blogging, explanations for the gender gap include the idea that women bloggers tend not to focus narrowly on topics – such as politics – which will attract and retain like-minded readers. Other explanations immediately put the difference down to disadvantage: "Vestiges of hundreds of years of gender stereotypes are still with us … Women get a different message from men about how to express their opinions. Women are not as encouraged to shout out their opinion. At times they’re actively discouraged." I would feel more comfortable accepting such statements if specific instances were supplied. Is it really the case that many women feel that they are "actively discouraged" from expressing their political opinions? How does this manifest itself? Have any female readers encountered this?
In Britain at least, the lack of female political bloggers mirrors (or rather amplifies) a lack of female party political activism. A 2004 Electoral Commission report found that while women are roughly as likely as men to vote or be involved in single issue campaigning, we are less likely to be involved actively in party politics. Amongst the reasons cited in the report are additional time taken up by child-minding, lower confidence that opinions would actually influence the political process, and – crucially – that women “express less interest in politics than men, are less likely to regard politics as important and less likely to trust a range of political institutions”. On Woman’s Hour earlier this year, the editor of Cosmo infuriatingly suggested that politicians could only attract young women’s interest by discussing a slender range of issues she claimed were ‘relevant to us’, such as sexually transmitted diseases. But must expectations of our horizons really be so narrow?
Perhaps there is a middle ground to be found somewhere between Cosmo-style condescension and indifference to women’s relative lack of involvement. No party can afford to say: “well, women just aren’t as inherently interested in politics, just leave it at that”. Politics is far too important for that, as are votes. But it is not clear how this gender gap can be narrowed if it is at least partly based on women’s own interests and choices. It’s so easy to trot out the received wisdom about women and political engagement: we’re put off by the combativeness of politics, we’re too lacking in self-confidence to articulate our opinions, it is up to politicians to bait the hook with supposedly female-friendly issues. None of these seem quite satisfactory – however, being female doesn’t necessarily provide piercing insights into a more effective strategy.