Would our future be better with women in charge?
This week's Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll appears to show a gender divide across a range of issues, from parades to flags to welfare reform. But would things really be any different if females called the shots, asks Fionola Meredith
It's often said that, if women were in charge, wars would cease, conflict would melt away and violence would be a thing of the past. There's a widely-held assumption out there that women are naturally inclined to be peace-loving, far more likely to seek dialogue and consensus than hot-headed, risk-taking and stubborn men. If we're talking cliches, women are also often believed to be more open-minded, more liberal, more tolerant of views other than their own.
Is there any truth in these old ideas? The only way we will ever find out for sure is if women stage a revolution – a bloodless coup, of course, given their supposedly innate pacifism – and snatch the reins of global power for themselves.
But, in the meantime, polls and statistics can give important insights into what women think, feel and believe, allowing us to form a picture of the way the world might look if they had their say.
All this week, the Belfast Telegraph has been publishing the results of an extensive LucidTalk poll on various aspects of political, economic and moral life in Northern Ireland. If you break the findings down on gender grounds, you start to see some fascinating patterns emerging. So what do women living here want? And how does it differ from the male perspective? Let's take a closer look.
In a poll about marching, more women than men believe that the Ardoyne Orange parade should be allowed to return past the flashpoint at the Ardoyne shops: that's 56.5% of women, as opposed to 43.5% men.
Some 55.5% of men chose option B: the parade should not be allowed to return past the shops, as did 44.5% of women.
What can we make of this overall finding? It appears to show the majority of men sticking steadfastly to their opposition to the parade, while the majority of women show a greater inclination to let it go ahead.
Bill White, director of LucidTalk, says that women seem more disposed towards compromise and common ground, drawn to solutions involving the Parades Commission or an independent inquiry, while their male counterparts – whether Protestant or Catholic – remain wedded to starker oppositions: pushing the parade through or resisting it. On these findings, women's renowned desire for consensus seems to be largely bearing out.
A question on flags and anthems divided men and women, too, with men showing much more enthusiasm for change.
Should Northern Ireland have a new flag for civic events? Of those answering Yes, 54.7% were men, 45.3% were women.
What about a new flag for sporting events? Oh yes, said the men, at 62.3%. Women, at 37.7%, were markedly less keen.
As for whether Northern Ireland should have an agreed national anthem, the proportions were similar: a big male Yes at 60.7%, compared to a quieter female one at 39.3%.
Teasing out the implications, Bill White asks whether "females are shown to be less inclined towards change and risk". It's possible.
Equally, it might show that women are generally less concerned with symbols of pride and belonging, or that they're more sceptical of how much difference changes such as new flags and anthems can actually achieve.
What about the tricky topic of the Maze prison site, and its possible future as a Peace and Reconciliation Centre (PRC)? Respondents could choose from three main responses:
A. PRC and all other developments should have full go-ahead, no vetoes.
B. PRC should not go ahead, but Yes to all other developments.
C. Stop everything until there is an agreed way forward on the PRC.
And, again, the gender breakdown showed some interesting comparisons.
Women were more likely to go for answers B (53.4% female, 46.6% male) and C (58.6% female, 41.4% male).
More men (55.8%) wanted the full development to proceed, including the peace centre, as opposed to women (44.2%).
The picture which emerges may show a determination among the majority of men to forge ahead and get the job done, while most women seem to be taking a cannier, more cautious line.
Does this indicate a greater female appetite not only for agreement, but for careful planning, and an aversion to plunging heedlessly into a delicate situation that requires a more sensitive approach? Or does it show that women are less likely to confront a problem head-on? It's all up for debate.
The issue of welfare reform appeared to show men once more digging their heels in. Again, respondents were offered three main answers:
A. It is a priority to maintain current welfare benefits whatever the cost.
B. We should adopt the welfare reforms with modifications that have already been agreed.
C. We should confront Westminster by refusing to either change welfare payments, or cut other budgets.
Men were more inclined to answers A (57.1%) or C (54.2%), wanting to keep current benefits standing whatever the cost, and/or refusing to change welfare payments, or cut budgets, while more women (56.7%) went for option B: essentially accepting the welfare reforms.
Once again, the interpretation is up for grabs: are most women simply more realistic, pragmatically accepting the inevitable without wasting time in pointless wrangling, or are they more inclined to capitulate, and give in without a fight?
Breaking the figures down still further, it's noticeable that, among Sinn Fein supporters – the party is staunchly opposed to welfare cuts – proportionately more men than women wanted to confront Westminster. Indeed, when it comes to the gender breakdown of voters, the poll shows that the two biggest parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have more men onside. DUP voters are 57.4% male, 42.6% female, while Sinn Fein voters are 56.5% male and 43.5% female.
It's the other way round with the SDLP (male 37.4%, female 62.6%) and the Alliance party (male 40.4%, female 59.6%). The Ulster Unionists, meanwhile, have a greater gender balance among voters, more evenly split at 47.8% men, 52.2% women.
Bill White says that Sinn Fein's vote in the Republic is even more male, at 75% to 80%, and he points out that "if the party can get the women's vote up to where it should be, they could double their representation in the Dail".
When asked to look to the future, 10 years down the line, women seemed much more optimistic about our collective prospects for success than men. 63.6% of men foresaw a return to Troubles-era violence, as against 36.4% of women, who were more confident of living in a stable, peaceful society. Women were also more positive about economic growth (61.6% to men's 38.4%). Does this suggest a female inclination towards looking on the bright side? Only time will tell.
Overall, Bill White believes that the results of this poll show women behaving in expected ways. "They look for compromise, and they're more concerned about employment and jobs, less about issues like flags and emblems. These results show a typical pattern in all polls, in the UK and elsewhere – that women are more cautious in making decisions.
"And you see men sticking to their views, even when there's new evidence, still trying to reinforce their previously held positions. They will change their minds eventually, but they'll take longer about doing it."
So are women just as cautious and consensus-driven, as the stereotypes – and the statistics – seem to suggest? Like all stereotypes, there is always some truth in the mix and the poll results appear to bear this out.
But it's important to look beyond the headline majority figures. For instance, while it's true that over 60% of men thought we were headed back towards conflict, so did over a third – 36.4% – of women. It may be a minority, but that's still a sizeable – and significant – proportion of female respondents.
Likewise, while over 60% of men liked the idea of a new Northern Ireland flag for sporting events, almost 40% of women approved too. Again, it's a sizeable minority, which can't be discounted. The story will always be much more complicated than the headline figures are capable of showing.
What's more, when it comes to interpreting data there's always the danger of generalising from one's own existing beliefs about male and female nature. We acquire these, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, over the course of our entire lifetimes, from a variety of sources including history, politics and religion.
This means there's a risk that we see what we expect to see: women behaving in certain ways, men behaving in others. For instance, the female willingness to accept welfare reforms could – depending on your perspective – be interpreted in radically different lights. A traditional view of women's nature might regard this as essential pliability, a sign of softness, and a lack of male aggression. But it could equally be seen as a stance of cool pragmatism, acknowledging that resistance is futile and that only battles you have a chance of winning are worth fighting.
All that taken into account, polls like this still provide an excellent snapshot of the differences (and similarities) between men and women, and the ways they react to the big problems of the day. And they give more than a few tantalising hints of how the world might look if women called the shots.
Fionola Meredith writes in the Belfast Telegraph every Friday
Surprise in gay marriage answer
One of the most controversial issues in recent times has been the question of same-sex marriage.
Respondents to the poll were asked: Westminster has legalised same sex marriage, although churches have a right to refuse to perform the ceremonies. Should this law be extended to Northern Ireland?
Again the gender split showed an interesting pattern. Yes was 55.4% male and 44.6% female, and No was 43.8% male and 56.2% female. So more men said yes, and more women said no.
This may be surprising to some, especially those who regard women as generally more open-minded and tolerant than men.
But age is a big factor in this result.
The Nos were mostly driven by the older age-groups — over one in four who said Yes were in the 18-24 age-group.