AUSTRALIA: Voters Prefer Men, Political Study Finds


Josh Gordon
November 22, 2007

AUSTRALIAN voters are strikingly biased towards men.

A major study covering 17,000 candidates that have contested federal seats over the past century has found that women continue to face a "systematic penalty" at the ballot box.

For no other reason than gender, a female candidate representing a major party is likely to get an average of 1500 votes less than a male colleague enough to shift the outcome in one out of every 10 seats.

The study, by Oxford University academic Amy King and Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh, concluded that female candidates in major parties tend to get 1.5% fewer votes than their male colleagues, all other things being equal. The average shrinks to a still-significant 0.6 percentage point gap when minor parties are included.

Dr Leigh said the vote bias helped to explain why women continued to be under-represented in Parliament, despite making up 50.3% of the population.

"It certainly does suggest why the major parties tend to put up fewer women if they are run by risk-averse blokes," Dr Leigh said.

But Hutch Hussein, the co-convener of Emily's List, an organisation which pushes for more Labor women in parliaments, said the bias was in the major parties, rather than the public.

"I don't think it has been the Australian public that is responsible," Ms Hussein said. "It has more to do with parties struggling to share power. Affirmative action is very important."

After the 2004 election, the share of women in the lower house was just 25% the 36th-worst out of 189 countries. Prior to 1970, only three women were elected to Parliament, and during the 1970s there was only one.

Dr Leigh said in marginal electorates the gender bias was significant enough to make a difference. "One in ten races are typically determined by a margin of less than 1.5%. Our results imply that in those races, one of the major parties could win with a man, but not with a woman."

The gender bias, averaging 600 votes when minor parties are included, would also affect electoral funding parties are rewarded for their votes with money by the Australian Electoral Commission after the election creating a significant impost for small parties dependent on commission funds.

"The AEC public funding amount is about $2 per vote, meaning that if a minor party puts up a woman, it'll typically receive $1200 less public funding than if it puts up a man," Dr Leigh said.

Although women candidates received fewer votes on average than male candidates in the 2004 election, the study found that the gap has shrunk massively as the pay gap between men and women has gradually closed.

In the 1920s, female candidates received an average of 10% fewer votes than male candidates of the same party. By the 1940s, the gap had narrowed to 5%. Since 1980, the vote penalty for being a female candidate has narrowed to between 0.5% and 0.7%.

The study also found that female candidates were not helped when competing with more than one woman on the same ballot, although female candidates tended to fare better with more women in Parliament overall.

The study found no evidence that poorer quality female candidates were chosen through the preselection process. But it did find that Australian voters may tend to use a candidate's gender to make predictions about his or her political attitudes.

The study said female candidates were one-third more likely to rate health as their top priority, and one-third less likely to rate taxation as their top priority.

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