The Role of Gender in Foreign Policy Attitudes

One of the most striking aspects of the BFPG’s recent survey of UK public opinion about foreign policy is the profound distinctions in the preferences and attitudes between genders. In the domestic sphere, women’s political preferences are well established and distinct, placing greater importance than men on public services, particularly health, welfare and education, and focusing less on economic issues, particularly taxation. However, the role of gender in shaping public opinion on foreign policy has been much less deeply explored. Our survey finds that women are consistently more hesitant and lack confidence about their views, and tend to be more disengaged from many aspects of the UK’s foreign policy; at the same time, we also see that women can possess unique instincts – whether to feel more isolationist, or more likely to support action on climate change. These complex views should be given more attention by policy-makers, as part of the urgent need to build a more inclusive foreign policy environment.

Disengagement

Women have a stronger sense of disconnect from the UK’s foreign policy than many men, driven in part by a lack of interest, with women (69%) somewhat less likely than men (74%) to claim to be interested in the UK’s foreign policy. When women do express an interest in foreign policy, this interest is often felt less keenly than among men, 35% of whom are ‘very interested’ in the UK’s international activities, compared to 25% of women. It is clear that women are less likely to feel that foreign policy is a sphere of interest or an arena in which they belong.

This likely reflects the fact that women remain underrepresented not only in the UK political sphere, but particularly in foreign policy. There has, for example, only ever been one female foreign secretary. And while there are an increasing number of women holding ambassadorial posts, the scale of female representation in these appointments is very nascent. As in other areas of policy-making, the absence of role models or representatives to champion women’s distinctive needs and priorities may contribute to cultivating a sense of disengagement.

This relative lack of interest is compounded by the significant self-reported knowledge disparities between men and women on foreign affairs, with 64% of men feeling informed about the UK’s foreign policy, compared to 50% of women. In part, this reflects a wider societal phenomenon by which women tend to underestimate their knowledge and skills relative to men. However, the sheer size of this knowledge gap between men and women, as well as the gap between women’s levels of interest and their levels of knowledge, makes clear the need to reorientate foreign policy and the messaging behind it, so that it speaks to, and informs, a more diverse range of people.

Lack of Confidence

Women’s lack of confidence in their understanding of foreign policy leads them to respond with uncertainty across a range of foreign policy issues, including on questions about the UK’s international relationships, immigration and defence. Concerningly, levels of uncertainty are particularly high in relation to many of the most pertinent contemporary foreign policy questions, with 23% of women unable to identify whether they hold any concerns around free trade agreements, twice the proportion of men who are unable to do so (12%). The danger is that where women are not equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to articulate their concerns, these concerns are neglected within the public sphere, contributing to women’s relative sense of marginalisation within British political life.

Women’s uncertainty is particularly high in relation to many of the UK Government’s new strategic foreign policy priorities and initiatives. For example, 25% of women are unsure of what Global Britain means to them, compared to 15% of men, and a significant plurality of women (49%) are unsure of their position on the Indo-Pacific tilt, twice the proportion of men who are unsure (25%). This greatly undermines buy-in from women on the UK’s foreign policy objectives, with just 35% of women thinking the Indo-Pacific should be a central or balanced part of the UK’s foreign policy, compared to 52% of men. For the UK Government, making foreign policy more appealing, resonant and accessible to women will therefore be central to securing public consent for its foreign policy goals.

Insecurity

One of the more striking findings of the BFPG’s 2020 survey is the degree to which women (26%) are significantly more likely than men (18%) to describe themselves as feeling ‘unsafe’, when considering the current direction of travel of world events, with 9% of women feeling ‘extremely unsafe’ compared to 4% of men. Just 1% of women feel ‘extremely safe’. These feelings of insecurity likely reflect a combination of domestic and international forces, but they appear to contribute to a sense of caution and scepticism among women, which permeates into how they regard the UK’s international relationships and how they view the UK’s role in the world.

Identities

Women are somewhat less likely to associate themselves with international identities, with 49% of men identifying as global citizens compared to 43% of women. Similarly, men (52%) are more likely than women (47%) to identify as European. However, this lower investment in international identities is not driven by a sense of patriotism among women, as men (60%) are more likely than women (46%) to identify as patriots. This relative lack of salience in terms of international identities also isn’t reflective of a lack of exposure to other countries – women were just as likely as men to travel abroad in both 2019 and 2020, and women are significantly more likely than men to engage in inter-cultural activities, such as international study abroad or exchange programmes. Women’s distinct attitudes here likely reflect their wider feelings of insecurity and lower levels of political trust, including of politicians, democracy and governments. This political distrust among women has been consistently correlated to the low proportion of women in politics and key decision-making bodies.

Isolationism and Caution

Women’s relative detachment from foreign policy appears to also shape their distinct foreign policy preferences, which often run counter to their domestic instincts and values. For example, despite women often holding a strong sense of community identity on a domestic level, they tend to be much more sceptical than men of many of our international relationships. An astonishing 48% of women do not think the UK has a ‘best friend’ in the world – almost twice as many as men (27%). This also plays into their views on specific bilateral relationships. Men (74%) are 15 percentage points more likely than women (59%) to trust Japan to act responsibly in the world and 12 percentage points more likely to trust the United States (53% to 41%) to do so. This scepticism also extends towards the UK’s strategic rivals as well, with women six percentage points more likely to distrust both Russia (83% to 77%) and China (81% to 75%).

Cautiousness around foreign policy also leads to greater resistance to UK military action among women, such that while 87% of men support UK military action in at least some circumstances, only 78% of women feel the same. Furthermore, men (22%) are more likely than women (14%) to trust the decision of our leaders and support British military action abroad under any circumstances, likely, in part, reflective of the fact women (37%) are somewhat less likely than men (41%) to trust the UK Government to take decisions in the UK public’s interests when it comes to foreign policy. This resistance to military intervention influences how women perceive the UK’s foreign policy challenges at present, with men (24%) twice as likely as women (12%) to support deploying security resources to contain China’s aggression in the South China sea.

In addition, driven by high levels of uncertainty among women (22%) and the sizable proportion of women who have never heard of NATO (10%), men (72%) are more likely than women (62%) to support the UK’s membership of NATO. Of those who support the UK’s NATO membership, men (90%) are also more likely than women (82%) to support adherence to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked. The gender disparity in views on Article 5 widens further when the strength of feeling is considered, with 54% of men strongly supporting adherence to Article 5, compared to just 35% of women.

Overall, it is unclear whether it is values, caution or a lack of confidence driving women’s relative reticence towards military interventionism, but it is also probably the case that – despite being more attuned to vulnerability – women are less likely to translate this into a desire for an active form of defence policy.

Values

Although not entirely consistent, women do tend to show some tendencies to lean towards a values-led foreign policy, which aligns more closely with their domestic values. For example, while men are 28 percentage points more likely to favour an economic and defence-driven foreign policy (46%) over a democracy and rights-driven foreign policy (18%), the gap between women is considerably smaller, at only 11 percentage points. And while women are clearly sceptical of aid spending during the pandemic, with 76% wanting to see it stopped or reduced until the UK economy recovers – nine percentage points more than men – women are also more supportive than men across a number of aid priorities, particularly those designed to directly benefit developing countries, including fighting environmental degradation (70% to 63%) and supporting girls’ education and women’s security (70% to 64%). This reveals something important about the distinction between the support for foreign aid investments through the lens of the programmes and issues they seek to remedy, and the specific question of the scale and reach of foreign aid spending.

Similarly, while there are no discernible distinctions between men and women in their support for the UK’s global leadership on climate action – although they are somewhat more inclined to regard climate change as a security threat – they are consistently, and significantly, more willing than men to undertake individual actions to tackle climate change. These include commitments to buying fewer clothes (51% of women, to 34% of men) and reducing plastic usage (66%, to 54% of men). Women’s outsized support for individual climate change action has been shown to reflect their broader collectivistic tendencies, their greater sense of community and social responsibility, and their greater engagement with their communities, particularly expressed through their participation in volunteering activities.

Conclusion

In realising the UK’s Global Britain project, there is both a moral and strategic need to engage women more significantly in national foreign policy-making. While we can conclude that, to some degree at least, women’s relative distrust of, and lack of engagement with, the UK’s current foreign policy shapes their relative tendencies towards caution, scepticism and even isolationism, it is also evident that further research needs to be undertaken into the formation of these opinions. Global Britain must speak to a more diverse spectrum of the British population. In doing so, not only will our conversations become richer and more representative, but it will also work to rebuild trust in and support for an ambitious global agenda.

 

The full report of the BFPG’s 2021 Annual Survey of Public Opinion on UK Foreign Policy and Global Britain can be downloaded here.

Evie Aspinall
evie.aspinall@bfpg.co.uk

Evie is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.