Anna Sanders, Politics, University of Manchester (2016 Cohort)
Parties often target women voters with policy promises during election times. However, we know very little about which types of policies matter to women voters. As part of my doctoral thesis, I ran a set of focus groups in Greater Manchester with women voters at the 2015 election, which aimed to explore this further.
I spoke to 61 focus group participants overall. I held focus groups in two constituencies (Manchester Central and Altrincham), splitting focus groups up by age (under 35s, 35-64 and 65+). Thanks to the NWSSDTP, I was able to use my research training support grant to remunerate participants with a £10 gift voucher.
It’s always good to reflect on what went well in the research process, but it’s also important to reflect on what didn’t, in order to know what to improve for next time. During the recruitment process, I started by printing adverts with details of my focus groups, and put these up in shop windows, cafes, and notice boards in Manchester and Altrincham. The response rate was very low, and I only heard back from two or three potential participants. On top of this, availability was a real issue: trying to orchestrate a time that everyone could make was difficult! As a result, I decided to ‘piggyback’ on pre-existing groups, such as mum and baby groups, coffee mornings at church halls, and student union events. I started by contacting the group convenor beforehand to ask if I could attend the group and introduce myself to participants. I then held the focus group after each session took place.
Attending pre-existing groups had several advantages compared to recruiting participants individually. Firstly, having all participants already in one room meant there were no additional travel expenses for participants. It also meant that the groups were more accessible to participants with caring responsibilities or those with mobility issues, as participants didn’t need to make a separate journey. On top of this, there were methodological advantages: having groups where participants already knew each other meant that they were arguably more comfortable with speaking out, and thus more comfortable with disagreeing with each other. As a result, this aided the quality of the discussion.
Across all groups, a clear theme emerged: women tended to think about redistributive, economic policies when they voted. But the specific economic policies they thought about varied across age group and were based on the context of the election. The 2015 election was held after five years of austerity measures, which hit women financially twice as hard as men. This is because women are more reliant on the state for welfare, services, and employment. Within my focus group discussions, I found that younger women under 35 were especially concerned about austerity and living costs. One younger woman said:
“For me, it’s how to cope with the cost of bills when they keep going up, especially electricity I’ve noticed… Normally I can budget carefully on top of food and rent each month, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy… all it takes is one utility bill that’s much higher than usual and you feel it financially, sometimes for a while after, actually.”
Another younger woman said:
“I’ve worked extra hours or days even to make ends meet. Sometimes you kind of just think, ‘I hope my car doesn’t break down this month’, or that you’ll have to fork out for unexpected things like that.”
Meanwhile, access to local, affordable childcare was a real issue for women aged 35-64, where woman said:
“My local Sure Start centre was closed…I relied on it to get the baby weighed, meet the health visitor, the nine-month check-up, the two-year check-up, breastfeeding clinics…Even though [my area] has got a lot of people on higher incomes, we still need centres to take the kids to.”
Interestingly, I found that older women valued pension-age benefits, particularly for the social benefits they brought. On the free bus pass, one older woman said:
“I use it everyday and it gets me from A to B…I see people I know on the [route] into town and we sit, we chat, and then we go off about our day. And then we do the same thing the day after.”
Which types of policies were less important to women voters? Surprisingly, I found that policies designed to tackle women’s discrimination – such as violence against women policies, or policies to increase the number of women in parliament – were comparatively less salient. That’s not to say that the women I interviewed didn’t care about these issues, but rather, they didn’t appear to think about them when it came to voting.
So what can parties learn from this? Parties should be mindful that women are not a monolithic group. We often talk about ‘the women’s vote’, but women differ across intersectional lines with issues affecting them to varying degrees. Redistributive, economic policies are also important. If parties are serious about winning women’s votes, they should start by addressing their economic and financial concerns. With an emerging cost of living crisis, it’s likely that these concerns will become even more pressing at elections.
See here for the link to the published paper: The Impact of Gendered Policies on Women’s Voting Behavior: Evidence from the 2015 British General Election: Journal of Women, Politics & Policy: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com)