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Women • Equality • Employment

Supporting working parents is good policy and good politics

Kimberly J Morgan - 09 April 2015

Women’s support for centre-left parties should not be taken for granted

As the British general election approaches, the scramble for female voters is underway. But efforts to attract, and some might say pander to, women voters are a mainstay of campaign politics in many countries these days. In the US, each electoral season brings a new archetype of most sought-after female voter – the ‘soccer mom’, ‘hockey mom’, or ‘security mom’ – and the likely presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2016 is sure to keep gender on the agenda. Beyond empty sloganeering, political strategists and candidates should consider ways to meaningfully reach out to the female electorate. As a whole, women voters tend to favor the left, but the gap is often small, volatile, and influenced by the strategic positioning of parties on issues women care about. One way politicians can appeal to female voters is through promising, and delivering, on policies to support working parents.

It used to be that women were more likely than men to be found in the camp of conservative parties. Since the granting of female suffrage and through at least the 1960s, the gender gap in most western countries favored parties of right. That began to change by the 1970s and 1980s in tandem with rising rates of women’s employment, changing social values and declining church attendance. Even in those countries where women’s voting rates remained conservative for longer, such as Italy or Spain, the female vote now generally favours the left.

This leftwing gender gap should not be reason for self-congratulation and complacency among left party leaders and strategists. In many countries, the gap is relatively small because female voting is also shaped by other socio-demographic factors, such as age or marital status. Like all voters, women’s partisan alignments are less stable than they were during the post-second world war decades, making them a variable source of support. And in multi-party systems, left-flank challengers to the mainstream parties, such as Green and other far-left parties, compete for progressive female voters. Candidates have to work for the votes of women, not just take them for granted.

Policies for working parents are one way for politicians to display their commitment to issues that many women care about. No country has fully alleviated the dilemmas facing working parents, and only a few countries, mostly in Scandinavia, offer universal and affordable childcare along with generous family leave. Everywhere else, there is considerable room for improvement. In some countries, policy shortcomings and competition over female voters have put work-family issues on the political agenda and produced meaningful reform. In Germany, for instance, Angela Merkel and others within the CDU recognised that championing better policies for working parents might help stanch declining support from female voters, particularly among younger women. Although reforms were enacted by a CDU-SPD coalition government, the CDU minister in charge effectively linked her party to the issue. This long overdue attention to the needs of working parents is not the only reason the gender gap has shifted back in favour of the CDU, but surely it helps explain this startling reversal.

Childcare and paid leave are salient issues for many voters. A recent TNS poll showed that, in the UK, the cost of caring for family is the third most cited issue of concern to women, following the cost of renting or buying a home and the National Health Service. In the US, large majorities favour federal dollars for early childhood education, and the ‘parent agenda’ seems likely to have a central place in the Democratic party’s 2016 presidential campaign strategy. When one party picks up the issue, others may feel pressure to follow. In France, for example, high demand for public childcare pushed all of the major presidential candidates in 2012 to promise expansionary reforms.

In the past, fights over traditional values made policies to support working mothers seem politically toxic. Those conflicts have less bite than they used to, as social change has made more women, and men, aware of the importance of good-quality childcare and paid leave. Work-family policies do not come in a one-size-fits-all-package either, but can be tailored to fit the values of a particular society. Thus, if popular sentiment favors allowing more time for parental care of young children, policies can encourage this through parental leave or part-time work. Where the aim is to promote women’s equality in the workplace, the focus can be on investments in day care and encouraging men to take up paid leave. In other words, there is no inevitable clash of differing child-rearing values and policies for working parents. Stay-at-home parents often value good-quality, subsidised preschool too, as it provides social and cognitive stimulation for their children without burdening the family budget.

Policies for working parents are good politics, and not just for the left.  Progressive politicians should champion this issue and propose meaningful reforms before their opponents steal their thunder.

Kimberly J. Morgan is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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