The male dominance of online British politics

One of the curious of political blogging in the UK is how male dominated it is. Although the Office of National Statistics’s figures show that the majority of bloggers in the UK are female and the majority of voters are female too, take a look through lists of Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem bloggers and you see lists that are dominated by men. The same applies with other parties and independent blogs. Political blogging in the UK is male dominated. But why?

One explanation is that UK politics overall is male dominated. Just look at the number of MPs or Cabinet members of each gender. Yet women and men turn out to vote in roughly equal proportions and, because there are more women than men on the electoral register, the majority of voters are usually female. Given that anyone can create a blog, why would the male domination kick in at the level of blogging?

A similar phenomenon is seen with commenting on political blogs, where the comments threads are more usually dominated by men. In this case questions of moderating rules and the culture that builds up around the comment threads on a site go some way to providing explanations. However, the similarity in the blogging and commenting patterns also suggests common factors are at work explaining both.

A clue as to how to answer all this is in the polling done for the recent Hansard Society publication The internet and the 2010 election. Overall it found that 51% of adult male UK internet users engaged with the general election online, either via official routes (such as visiting a party website) or unofficial ones (such as forwarding a link to a satirical online video). Amongst adult female internet users it was just 38%, 13 percentage points lower.

Looking specifically at posting political comments on blogs or social networks, 8% of male adult internet users did this and 4% of women did (though some caution should be applied about margins of error on these smaller numbers). The Hansard Society report concludes that “in general men were considerably more likely to engage in the online campaign compared with women”.

That finding is comparable to other evidence, such as the balance of male and female fans of the Lib Dem Voice page on Facebook and (in 2009, the most recent data I have seen) for the official Liberal Democrat page. Both are heavily male.

In other words, the male dominance of blogging and commenting seems to reflect a wider question of engagement with politics in the UK rather than specific features of either of those two practices. That may not answer my original questions, but it makes it clearer where the answers are to be found and, as evidence from newspaper letters pages suggest, the answer may not lie online at all.

Perhaps partly too it is a question of gender differences when it comes to self-promotion. There are plenty of individuals who defy the clichés about men being more willing to say “look at wonderful me” than women. But there is also evidence suggesting that there is overall a difference here, as reflected in the male dominance of Digg and Reddit but which drops away as you move to social networks that are less about “hey, *I* think this story is important”.

Both those statistics and the ONS figures were pointed out to me by Jennie Rigg, who in her own thought-provoking post on this topic said,

Yet another part of the problem is that although what might be termed initial content (blogs, tweets, etc.) is majority-female, promotion tools, such as Digg, Technorati, blog aggregators like Lib Dem Blogs, etc. are majority-male. So men recommend posts by men to other men.

It’s a problem I found when selecting two posts each Saturday evening for inclusion in our former Sunday View feature. Despite deliberately wanting to have a range of bloggers featured over time that was a diverse set of people, with good geographic spread and a fair sprinkling of new names in amongst the regulars I know from the tallies that I sometimes made that it often ended up far short of that.

An important caveat to this – and one Jennie also points out – is that I have used “politics” as a shorthand for politics in the sense of elected public office and the elections, campaigns, debates, candidates and parties that go with that. Politics has other meanings too, and in particular my definition excludes much of the online commentary about feminism which other definitions would count as politics. Even so, there are other issues here than solely the question of how “politics” is defined.

In particular, a worry is that as the number of people online and the number of hours spent online both continue to grow in the UK, that may reinforce rather than undermine the historic male-dominance of British electoral politics.

Such broad issues very rarely have a quick or simple solution, but here’s one suggestion. Local parties are used to making efforts, often very successful, to attempt to get a broad and diverse range of people standing in their patch for local elections. Why not apply some of that to trying to ensure that the team of people who is involved in running the local party website, Facebook group or other online presences is similarly diverse?

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