Voter gender bias towards female party leaders

“The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership. It explains some things and it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.” – Julia Gillard, 26 June 2013, farewell press conference

GillardRuddAustralian elections expert Antony Green has written an extremely fascinating article exploring the gender bias behind support for the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As you may recall, the ALP recently underwent another leadership spill which resulted in Prime Minister and party leader Julia Gillard being dumped by her party in favour of former party leader and PM Kevin Rudd.

During Gillard’s term as party leader and PM, gender because a prominent issue in Austrlian politics. As Green notes:

That opinion polls tended to show Mr Abbott polling less well among female voters was another factor in bringing gender into the general political debate.

Labor regularly highlighted Mr Abbott’s polling with female voters and the Liberal Party’s decision to feature Mr Abbott more often with his family and with his female colleagues and candidates suggested Liberal Party polling revealed something similar.

And of course, there was that now-famous attack on Abbott by Gillard in which she accused him of being a misogynist. That video went viral thanks to social media, garnering over 2 million views (at time of writing).

But what new polling is showing is that while the Liberal Party is less popular with women, Labor under Gillard was much popular with men:

On July 16, after the change of Labor leadership, the Australian featured a special analysis of Newspoll looking at the shift in gender voting with the change in leadership.

The article pointed to Labor’s support among women having lifted from 34 per cent to 38 per cent with the change of leadership. The article’s headline was all about Rudd being more popular among women than Gillard, the story re-visiting the misogyny and gender debate.

What I thought more revealing in the Australian’s table was the shift in the male vote after the change of leadership. Labor’s vote among men rose 7 per cent from 28 per cent to 35 per cent.

Before the change, a Fairfax Nielsen poll published on June 16 had highlighted a slump in Labor support among male voters; Labor slipping from its traditional position of polling more strongly among men than women had been evident earlier.

For all the talk of Mr Abbott’s problem with female voters, not nearly as much attention was paid to a clearly evident problem that Ms Gillard had with male voters, the other dimension to a gender gap in voting.

The leadership spill occurred on 26 June 2013, and the above poll would have been conducted days afterwards. Labor’s policies did not change overnight following the leadership change, therefore it is fairly safe to conclude, as Green does, that the increase in support for the part among male voters was entirely due to the change in leadership. The question remains, of course, did men simply dislike Gillard as a person, or did they dislike her specifically because she was a woman? That we will never know.

Political opinion polls conducted in Canada frequently single out the differences between male and female support for certain political parties, and sometimes for the party leaders as well. However, very little analysis is devoted to these differences, or to the fact that certain parties consistently poll better with one gender. If any analysis does focus on this, the difference in support by gender is attributed to policy – the party in question has policies which appeal more to male voters and less to female voters. It isn’t surprising that no attention would be given to the gender of the party leader since, barring a precious few exceptions, party leaders in Canada (at the federal level at least) have been overwhelmingly male.

There have been only four female leaders of major federal parties since 1867. The Liberal Party has never had a female leader, the Conservative Party (back when it was the Progressive Conservative Party) has had one, and the New Democrats (NDP) have had two. The Green Party is currently led by a woman, who is also the party’s only elected MP.

The NDP had two consecutive female leaders, Audrey McLaughlin (1989-1995) and Alexa McDonough (1995-2003). The party’s performance under their respective leaderships wasn’t stellar, but it isn’t possible to know to what degree gender bias may have been a factor. McLaughlin assumed the leadership from Ed Broadbent. Following the 1984 election, several polls afterward showed that Broadbent was the most popular party leader in Canada. Broadbent was the only leader ever to take the NDP to first place in public opinion polling, and some pundits felt that the NDP could supplant the Liberals as the primary opposition to the Progressive Conservatives. Nonetheless, he was not successful in translating this into an election victory in the 1988 federal election, since the Liberals reaped most of the benefits from opposing free trade. However, the NDP elected a party record 43 seats in that election, a record unchallenged until the 2011 election. The party’s first election under McLaughlin’s leadership (1993) was a disaster; the party was reduced to 9 seats, losing official party status. Things improved only marginally under McDonough – the party won 21 seats in the 1997 election, but then was reduced to 13 in the 2000 election.

Where the party’s misfortunes due to having female leaders? As Prof. Alan Cairns states in his paper, An Election to be Remembered: Canada 1993, it is impossible to know. In the 1993 election, two parties had female leaders: the NDP’s McLaughlin and the incumbent Progressive Conservatives were led by Kim Campbell:

The potential effect of this on their party’s support was unknown. Although McLaughlin suggested there was an anti-feminist backlash, this was discounted by most observers.

There were a great many other factors at play in the 1993 election which impacted the NDP’s fortunes. The PCs under Campbell’s leadership had a disastrous campaign, and the party itself was extremely unpopular after two terms in office, and it was decimated at the polls, reduced to only two seats. That result had very little to do with having a female leader.

Getting back to Australia, and Antony Green’s excellent article (please do read it in full!), the evidence is quite clear that male gender bias against Julia Gillard played a major factor in Labor’s polling:

In summary it is clear that in changing leader, Labor received overall support among intended Labor voters, received greatest backing for the change from among Centre voters, and received overwhelming backing from male voters – with little evidence of a major backlash among female voters.


Whether Labor’s problems were caused by sexism in the electorate, sexism by Ms Gillard’s opponents, sexism in the media, or missteps by Ms Gillard herself, clearly Labor couldn’t allow the impasse on the leadership to persist.

Labor’s bounce in the polls after the leadership change has subsided, and the Coalition are still favourites to win the election.

But Labor is still polling better than before the leadership change, and the Vote Compass data reveals that the story is not about Tony Abbot and female voters, but male voter attitudes to Julia Gillard.

This is obviously an area which requires more study, but until female party leaders are more commonplace, such study won’t be possible.

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