The following piece originally appeared on IntellectualCapital.com.

Gender Flop

by Adele M. Stan

April 13, 2000

If recent polls hold up on Election Day, the gender gap will once again rule the outcome. But this time the gap will have a new face, one with a five-o’clock-shadow. For current trends portend that men will make the difference—not women.

In the 1996 presidential election, the gender gap made its most thunderous appearance to date when Democratic President Bill Clinton split the male vote with his GOP rival, Bob Dole, but won the votes of women by a 16-point margin. This time around, women voters appear to be evenly split, percentage-wise, between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, while Bush winds hands-down among women. It is a set-up that could make the 2000 election the negative to 1996’s photo finish.

What do women want?

So the game is on to win the hearts of America’s women. Gore can’t possibly win the election without winning a large majority of female votes. Thus Bush needs to keep Gore from winning that large majority. So we’ve got Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and Gore’s earth tones. We’ve got education, education, education as the issue that gets thumped, though neither candidate has articulated an inspired approach to the issue in its broadest sense. And we’ve got women crossing their arms, saying, “Whatever.” Because neither candidate seems to get just what it is that women know. We know when we’re being played. And we don’t like it.

We certainly didn’t like that “soccer mom” thing in ’96. Even my friends who have kids who play soccer did not appreciate having their lives and concerns summed up by just one of the umpteen roles they play in a given week. (When speaking of the male vote, no one mentions “Little League dads” as a voter category.) And we’re getting a little weary of how, ever since those so-called soccer moms turned out en masse for Clinton, every issue we name as important in those limiting polls (the pollsters pick their top ten; we just get to rank them) winds up getting mommy-tracked.

Take education. Both of our presidential candidates, Alpha male (Gore) and Delta Epsilon Kappa male (Bush), make the presumption that when women rank education as their No. 1 issue, they are only talking about their kids' education. (Everybody knows that all women have children, around whom the entirety of their worlds revolve.) Yet when you really begin dishing the subject of education with women, you find that they are talking about much, much more.

Yes, they are talking about the public schools. But they are also talking about life-long learning, so that they, their families and friends can stay afloat in the new economy. They are talking about higher education, especially in rust-belt areas where a brain drain has led to a dearth of economic development. New-economy companies have no reason to locate themselves in an area where the work force is aging and undereducated, and women seem to get this. In its 1996 "Women's Voices" polling of women's attitudes, the Center for Policy Alternatives found that the economy and economic development ranked top among women's concerns, and education came next. But theirs was deep-reaching research, not a snapshot poll, and the two issues were found to be intertwined.

Women mean business

Totally missed in this year's campaign chatter is women's overwhelming support for government investment in entrepreneurial activities. More than half of new businesses are opened by women. During her presidential campaign, Elizabeth Dole was fond of saying that women-owned businesses employed more Americans than did Fortune 500 companies. The Center for Policy Alternatives found that 40 percent of the female respondents in their '96 poll wanted to open a business, and that a majority of those without entrepreneurial dreams thought that government should do more to help small businesses get started.

But small-business investment does not appear on the pollsters' lists of issues to rank. Neither does the time deficit, a term coined by policy wonks to describe the lack of living time experienced by many workers because of long workdays and/or long commutes.

Even as Democratic strategists grudgingly credit Bush for luring women into his camp, as they did in a March 26 New York Times article, they seem to have missed the genius of Bush's strategy. It is not that the "compassionate conservatism" theme and the candidates' focus on public education is working with women as a category; it is working with white mothers.

Gore's strongest support among women was shown in the March 26 Voter.com/Battleground poll to come from unmarried women, retirees and minorities. So, at this moment in time, it is more accurate to say that Bush has succeeded in splitting the coalition of women who voted for Clinton in the last election.

Meanwhile, Gore's approach to winning the female vote has been so program-specific around such concerns as Social Security and Medicare that he is missing the opportunity to pull women as a group. And even though most of the white suburban mothers who are leaning toward Bush support abortion rights (as do most women in other categories), Gore has done little to illuminate the concern they should have about Bush's views on the topic. Should women voters succumb to the wedge driven by the two camps according their issues, the loss will not only be Gore's; it will be all of ours.

Can we talk?

The rumble of division between people who have children and those who do not has begun to be heard in the workplace. People who do not have kids grumble that they pick up the slack for those who do -- you know, the ones who leave the office at 5 or 6 p.m. to fetch the kids from daycare, the ones who take time off for teacher conferences and pediatrician appointments.

Among women in the baby-boomer generation, a full 20 percent have no children. And though our work culture leaves precious little time for parenting, it leaves none for those who do not have kids to live their lives. Instead of acknowledging that all human beings require a life outside the office, only parenting is considered a quasi-legitimate excuse to claim one. By focusing on daycare, aftercare and family leave as the only means for dealing with the time deficit, politicians reinforce the divide between parents and non-parents, and deprive women voters and the electorate at large of a meaningful dialogue on the challenges of the new economy. Surely, government support for these programs is necessary, but broader issues warrant discussion.

Gore has a unique opportunity to repair this fissure before it becomes a chasm, and to win the presidency for his efforts. But to do so, he will have to step back from his incremental approach and have a look at the big picture. After all, women are said to be the multi-tasking, holistic thinkers in the Venus/Mars equation. He will have to look at women voters not just as mothers or seniors or people taking care of seniors; he will have to see us as people who may be any, all or none of those things. Venus to Alpha: Can we talk?

Adele M. Stan is a regular contributor to IntellectualCapital.com. She is the Washington correspondent for Working Woman magazine.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?