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Your sex can drive the way you vote

By Andrew Leigh - posted Thursday, 22 November 2007

One of the great surprises of election 2007 is that there has not been more discussion of sex. I’m not referring to the squishy kind, of course - but questions of gender and politics. Social commentators often tell us that men and women behave differently in the workplace, in relationships and on the sporting field. But political commentators seem to take a strangely asexual approach to their discussions of how men and women differ as voters and candidates.

Are male voters from Mars and female voters from Venus? According to the first Australian election survey, conducted after the 1966 election, the answer seemed to be yes. Women in those elections were significantly more right-wing than men: nearly 10 percent more likely to vote for the Coalition.

Over the following decades, the gender voting gap has steadily narrowed, with women becoming more left-wing (relative to men). Yet even in the early-1990s, a gap existed. If we had banned men from voting in 1993, John Hewson would have beaten Paul Keating. And by the 2001 election, the voting patterns of men and women had crossed over, with women slightly more left-wing than men.


And it’s not just in Australia where women have been moving left. As Lena Edlund and Rohini Pande have shown, women in the United States and Western Europe have done the same. Indeed, in many of those countries, women are much more likely to support left-wing parties than men. Judging by these studies and by the long-term trend in Australian women’s attitudes, it seems likely that their steady drift to the left will continue.

The second way that gender affects politics is via the sex of the candidates. In a forthcoming study of male and female candidates, Amy King and I analysed election outcomes from 1903-2004. We found that major party female candidates receive about one and a half percent fewer votes than male candidates from the same party. Perhaps the only consolation for female candidates is that the gap is not as large as in the past. In the 1940s, the penalty to be a female candidate was over 5 percent - perhaps explaining why only three women were elected to the House of Representatives in the first seven decades of the twentieth century. But even in the most recent elections, we found no evidence of a premium for female candidates in Australian federal elections. As in the labour market, it seems, females face a penalty in entering political life.

The underrepresentation of women in parliament (women make up 50.3 percent of the population, but 25 percent of the House of Representatives) may even have implications for policy outcomes. When surveyed about their attitudes to trade unions, taxes, education and defence, female candidates in Australian elections are consistently more left-wing than male candidates from the same party. And if America’s experience is anything to go by, the extent of female representation may directly affect policy outcomes. In the United States, legislatures with more women pass more laws that help women, children and families, more generous workers’ compensation schemes and stricter child support enforcement policies.

The final way that gender can affect elections is perhaps the most surprising of all. It turns out that the sex of your children can change the way you vote. In studies looking at Germany and the United Kingdom, Andrew Oswald and Nick Powdthavee have shown that parents with daughters are more likely to be left-wing, while parents with sons are more likely to be right-wing. What is particularly interesting about these studies is that the sex of your child is entirely random, so we know that the association is truly causal. Moreover, the effects are more than trivial. Oswald and Powdthavee estimate that every additional daughter makes you two percentage points more likely to vote for a left-wing party. We’ve all heard of the bumper sticker "Insanity is hereditary - you get it from your kids". But perhaps the same is true of political attitudes.

And it looks like voters are not the only ones affected by the gender of their children. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ebonya Washington has shown that politicians are affected by the gender of their children. Analysing voting patterns in the United States Congress, she finds that politicians with daughters are more likely to vote in favour of abortion rights than politicians with sons.

Voter gender, politician gender and child gender. Now surely that’s three good reasons to bring sex back into politics?

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on November 21, 2007.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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