Gillard’s gender gap is man-made, and Abbott’s is all of his own making.
There are many reasons why voters might dislike Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott that have nothing to do with their gender. But there has been a lot of commentary recently about Abbott’s ‘women problem’, evidenced by a widening gap between his approval ratings with women as compared to men. The LNP is blaming this problem on a supposed campaign by Labor members Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and Deb O’Neill. Liberal member Kelly O’Dwyer inelegantly called this group a ‘hand bag hit squad’ when lashing out at them in parliament this week. Simon Benson wrote in the Telegraph that:
All three have led the campaign to paint the Opposition leader Tony Abbott as a misogynist.
What seems to have escaped the Coalition’s attention, and that of journalists reporting this news, is that female voters’ attitude to Tony Abbott has not been formed by anything recently said by senior Labor women. Nor has it been generated by David Marr’s article in The Monthly in which he reveals that Abbott was an intimidating bully towards a female student at university. Women voters knew it already. When hearing this news story, Australian females did not collectively say ‘well that’s interesting, I didn’t know Abbott’s character was like that’. They collectively said ‘I always knew he was a bully and had a problem with women, and now here is more unequivocal proof’. It also didn’t help Abbott’s cause that he denied the event occurred, thereby labeling the female victim as a liar. Doesn’t this resonate with Abbott’s campaign to paint Gillard as a liar in order to discredit her? Female voters have had a long time to get to know Abbott, and it’s not just the way he walks or his inherent ‘blokiness’ that turns them off. It’s because he says things like this:
I think there does need to be give and take on both sides, and this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think they are both… they both need to be moderated, so to speak.
I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.
Angela Shanahan is right when she wrote in the Australian that:
Women are not fools at the ballot box: they vote for policies, not a leader’s personality (fire-walled of course).
But she fails to connect this argument with the point that females don’t like Abbott because they know instinctively that a man who holds such attitudes about women (that is, his personality), will not, as a leader, develop policies that promote women’s rights and interests. Furthermore, since Abbott tells voters so little about his future plans, women are left to judge for themselves what his policies might be, based on his personality.
The latest polls this week have highlighted that female voters’ perception of Abbott as a sexist bully is increasingly affecting their voting intentions. In this article Michelle Grattan reports that:
Tony Abbott is seen as being significantly more arrogant, narrow-minded, intolerant, and aggressive than Julia Gillard, in a new poll underlining the Opposition Leader’s image problem.
In Grattan’s article about the poll results on Monday, it is reported that:
In an important finding in light of claims about Mr Abbott having problems with women and an allegation of intimidatory behaviour towards a fellow student in 1977, he is 12 points behind as preferred PM among women, but leads by 5 points among men.
If Abbott’s 12 point deficit among women is evidence of the situation outlined above, how can we explain Abbott being 5 points ahead among men? Easy. It’s because Gillard is 5 points down with men. So what are the reasons for Gillard’s gender gap?
Anne Summers’s recent speech: ‘Her Rights at Work. The Political Persecution of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister‘ might go some way to explaining Gillard’s ‘problem’ with male voters. In this speech, Summers examines what she describes as:
the sexist and discriminatory treatment of Australia’s first female prime minister by the Opposition and by some elements in Australian society.
She describes a campaign that is:
the deliberate sabotaging of the prime minister by political enemies, who include people within her own party, and who are using an array of weapons which include personal denigration, some of it of a sexual or gendered nature, to undermine her and erode her authority.
I agree that such a campaign has been waged against Gillard. All the misogynistic abuse directed at her, detailed in Summers’s appendix to her speech, is horrifying. I also agree that this campaign aims to undermine and erode Gillard’s authority, and has reduced her popularity amongst some men.
Part of the reason why Summers’s argument is so shocking is that we, as Australians, have to come to terms with the behaviour of these people, mostly men, who justify their revolting antics by saying they have free speech and can use this right to show their hatred of our Prime Minister. Even though women dislike Abbott, this has not produced the sort of vile response that male hatred of Gillard has. I am not sure if the sub header in this Daily Telegraph piece has a typo, but if it was deliberate, it speaks volumes. The main headline reads:
Male voters turning off Prime Minister Julia Gillard according to pollsters.
The subheading says something similar, apart from one very important word.
Julia Gillard has a man problem. As the popularity of our first female prime minister plummets, government insiders fear men are turning on Ms Gillard.
Turning ‘on’ Ms Gillard. There is a lot of evidence that male voters don’t just voice their opinions at the ballot box by turning ‘off’ a leader, in the way that women are turning off Abbott. Some male voters have turned ‘on’ her as part of the misogynist campaign described by Summers.
But does this fully account for the poll results? Unfortunately, no.
There are many male voters who are so unengaged with politics generally that they are unlikely to be directly influenced by the specifics of the misogynist campaign against Gillard. These are people who wouldn’t have taken much notice of political media reportage, Tony Abbott’s door stops, Facebook hate groups and Alan Jones anti-carbon tax rallies. Yet they still contribute to Gillard’s poor standing in the polls amongst men. This leads me, sadly, to conclude that there are still many Australian men who are inherently misogynist and just not comfortable with a female in charge.
This situation is not unique to Gillard or Australia. An article in the New Zealand Herald reports on the polls in the lead up to the 2008 New Zealand election. The then Prime Minister, Labor’s Helen Clark, was far more unpopular with men than her rival, National John Key:
A gender breakdown of the poll reveals that National has 60.6 per cent support among males, miles ahead of Labour’s 24.7.
That’s quite a gender gap! This article about the Democratic primaries race between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, discusses the influence of race versus gender in terms of their effect on voters, and concludes:
one fact is clear. The primary data indicates that “more Americans see gender as more of a barrier in presidential politics than race”.
Julia Gillard quipped to Barack Obama:
you think it’s tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister.
It seems she is correct, her position is more difficult.
Could people argue that Abbott’s problem with women is similar to Gillard’s problem with men, and therefore the voting preferences cancel each other out? Could they say that this is simply a case of women voting for a female and men voting for a male? I don’t believe so. It’s not just because Abbott is a man that women don’t like him. It is because he is a horrible and sexist man. However, the difference in negative perceptions of Gillard amongst male voters as compared with woman voters can’t be blamed on sexism on her part, as nothing she has ever said or done has given the slightest ammunition to the idea that she unfairly discriminates based on gender. Abbott’s disadvantage with female voters is self-inflicted, but Gillard’s disadvantage with male voters appears to be innate, because she was born female.