Feeling Disengaged from UK Foreign Policy: the Gender Divide

Recent polling carried out by BMG Research on behalf of the BFPG suggests that women in the UK feel notably less engaged on foreign policy than men, one of the more striking divides on foreign policy in Britain. ‘Engagement’ in this case is defined as the combination of active interest and self-reported knowledge on UK foreign policy.

A lot of the conversations taking place in the UK policy world around gender and foreign policy focus on what the UK can be doing to empower women internationally. The Department for International Development for example has a relatively new “Strategic Vision for Gender Equality” which focuses on supporting the poorest women and girls internationally. But this survey shows that when it comes to foreign policy, there is a serious disconnect around engaging women right here in the UK.

The Data

British women are 9% less likely than men to be actively interested and 19% less likely to feel informed on UK foreign policy.

When we compare the levels of self-reported knowledge with those from similar polling carried out in 2017, there is a notable overall increase of 5%. This increase only applied to men though, who are 11% more likely to feel more informed whilst women are actually 1% less likely to feel informed.

Women are also less likely to take a position on UK foreign policy issues, especially ones supporting an outward looking approach. Instead, there is a significant percentage of women that, unlike men, responded ‘don’t know’ to questions. There is a correlation between self-reported lack of knowledge and lack of support for the UK’s international ambitions, which leads to a notable difference between the results for men and women due to the striking difference on levels of perceived knowledge.

This correlation can be seen throughout the survey. Women were consistently less likely to support staying in any of the organisations polled. For example, only 48% of women want the UK to remain in the World Bank, with a surprisingly large number (32%) saying they didn’t know (those who hadn’t heard of the organisation were 11%). Women are 7% less likely than men to want the UK to spend more money on foreign policy, but they are also less likely to want to reduce spending (3%), with almost 1 in 5 women in our survey simply saying they don’t know.

Why does this matter?

This reported difference in engagement between men and women in the UK matters for two key reasons. The first is that the self-reported knowledge gap between men and women negatively affects women in the UK. This gap perpetuates the inaccessibility of foreign policy, which in turn can result in a feeling of disconnect, in particular for women. Addressing this gap is a beneficial move for Government, who currently lose out from a less engaged female audience that are in turn less likely to support their international policy.

It is not enough to look at current positive overall trends and say that the UK public is adequately informed. The positive trajectory in perceived public understanding of foreign policy over the last two years has been among men and so seems to be inaccessible or unavailable for women. A concerted, proactive approach is needed to help women feel more informed on foreign policy.

What can be done?

Many potential solutions to help better engage women with foreign policy issues are not new, but that doesn’t make them any less urgent. Female representation, across all sectors, is something recognised as vitally important in promoting inclusivity and in providing a more accurate representation of society. When it comes to foreign policy these positive changes also impact the shaping of policy, all of which in turn can lead to more interest and knowledge on the issues at hand for women.

Greater equality in the workplace, even outside the foreign policy space, can also help empower women to be informed and supportive of UK foreign policy. The section of the BFPG’s Behind Global Britain report on mobility gives some clues as to how this can impact change. According to the polling in this report, British women are currently much less likely to travel for work, both within the UK and abroad. These limitations on mobility are shown to have a link to opinion on foreign policy, generally associated with a more inwards looking approach to foreign policy.

What about the impacts of the policies themselves? As shown by the briefing paper on “Making post-Brexit Trade Gender Sensitive”, international trade can often reinforce pre-existing inequalities, meaning that women aren’t able to obtain the same benefits as men from it, and are often also one of the disadvantaged groups. Adopting a feminist foreign policy that works on addressing these inequalities, not only around trade but around diplomacy and defence related issues too has the potential to make a big difference.

As the UK departs the EU and starts to re-evaluate and re-think its foreign policy and its role in the world it should use the opportunity to build engagement across the UK, with an added focus on women. Ensuring women feel engaged on UK foreign policy is a unique opportunity to bring about positive change whilst also building broader credibility to the UK as it pushes to position itself at the forefront of the global fight for gender equality.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.