The presence of women in a decision-making body increases the public’s perception of that body’s legitimacy, especially when that group makes decisions that impact women. This is one of the key findings of “All Male Panels? Representation and Democratic Legitimacy,” by Amanda Clayton, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, and her co-investigators, Jennifer Piscopo, assistant professor of politics at Occidental College, and Diana O’Brien, associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, appearing soon in the American Journal of Political Science.
To conduct their study, the researchers varied the gender composition of a hypothetical bipartisan legislative committee and the decision it made about a policy impacting women’s rights.
The legislative committee was either all male or gender-balanced, and the choice on the docket was either to increase or decrease penalties for workplace sexual harassment. Since the victims of workplace harassment are overwhelmingly female, a decision to increase penalties signified a positive impact for women, while the decision to decrease the penalties would signify a negative impact.
The presence of women legitimizes legislative decisions
For each of the four possible conditions, the survey respondents were asked whether the decision was right for all citizens, whether it was right for women specifically and how fair it was to women.
They found that the public was substantially more likely to perceive a decision negatively impacting women as fair when it was made by a gender balanced committee than when the same decision was made by an all-male committee. The gender composition had no effect on what people thought about the fairness of the decision when it positively impacted women.
While the presence of women in the committee was more likely to increase the perceived legitimacy of the antifeminist decision for everyone, the effect was twice as strong for men.
“This effect may be particularly strong for men because they have less certain opinions about the issue of sexual harassment, and thus may be more easily persuaded by women’s presence,” said Clayton. “Women, on the other hand, are more likely to have strong pre-existing feelings about the issue.”
To test that question, the researchers asked the respondents how serious of a problem they thought sexual harassment was. Seventy-five percent of women rated it very serious, compared to just 55 percent of men. This suggests that the more certain someone’s opinion is about the subject, the less likely they are to be swayed by the gender composition of the committee.
The presence of women legitimizes the decision-making process
Next, the survey respondents were asked questions to assess their feelings about the legitimacy of the deliberative process—not the outcome. Respondents were asked to rate their impression of the fairness of the process and how much they trusted the committee to make fair decisions. In this case, gender balance substantially increased the perception of procedural legitimacy, though much more when the panel reached an antifeminist decision.
Because sexual harassment is a much more salient concern for women than men, the researchers then ran the same experiment again, but this time replaced sexual harassment with animal mistreatment as the subject of debate. This time, the gender composition of the panel had no bearing on the public’s perception of the fairness of the outcome, but it did substantially change how they perceived the process. Again, the public had much more confidence in a gender-balanced committee than an all-male one.
“Americans strongly prefer inclusion,” said Clayton. “Including women in political decision-making improves the public perception that political decisions are legitimate and that political institutions are working fairly.”
Everyone wants women to be in the room when decisions are made
Looking at the demographics of their respondents, the researchers found that both Democrats and Republicans had more faith in the gender-balanced committee than all-male one—although to varying degrees. (Republicans are more likely to rate an antifeminist decision made by a gender-balanced panel as fair than Democrats are.) It even held true when respondents were not asked to explicitly consider the gender balance of the committee when making their assessments, but rather were simply shown photos of the hypothetical committee members. Additionally, it held true both immediately after the 2016 election, when gender was a particularly salient topic of public debate, and a year later—before the #metoo movement began.
“In future research, we’re interested in exploring how messages of women’s inclusion or exclusion in political decision-making compel citizens, both men and women, to become more involved in the political process, including the decision to run for office,” Clayton said.
With only 19.3% female representation in the House of Representatives and 23% in the Senate, the United States currently ranks 103rd in the world in terms of women’s representation in national legislatures. To improve its record, the US should look to countries with greater gender parity.
At the top of that list is Rwanda, where women make up 61.3% of the lower house and 38.5% of the upper house. In 2003, the country adopted a new constitution that reserves 30% of parliamentary seats for women and requires political parties to ensure that women hold at least 30% of elected internal positions. France is one of 49 other countries that also have statutory quotas or reserved seats for women.
Such quotas may, however, be unnecessary. In seven of the top ten countries for female representation, political parties have voluntarily implemented their own rules on the matter. Globally, over 100 political parties in 53 countries have voluntary measures in place to increase the number of women candidates and party officials.
But, legislated or not, quotas can be controversial. Some claim that they are undemocratic. There is no doubt that they are a blunt instrument. Can we do better?
A more nuanced approach would focus on eliminating the underlying, interconnected barriers that women face in getting nominated for elected office and conducting successful campaigns. Such obstacles include the election system itself (women fare better under proportional representation than they do in first-past-the-post systems based on single-member districts); lack of access to financing; weaker professional networks; and outside responsibilities that make it harder to take on punishing and unpredictable working conditions.
Overcoming such structural barriers requires a comprehensive strategy for supporting women candidates. One of the most powerful tools is money.
In many countries, the cost of campaigning is becoming prohibitively high for most aspirants, regardless of gender. But women seem to have it worse than men. In a 2008 survey of 292 parliamentarians around the world, the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that female MPs viewed lack of finance as a more significant deterrent to entering politics than their male counterparts did.
This problem is particularly pronounced in the US, where parties and candidates can spend almost unlimited amounts to get elected. Wealthy candidates (usually men) finance their own campaigns, with some women, such as Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, relying on their husbands’ fortunes. Overall, this system disadvantages women.
Fortunately, some countries are introducing innovative measures to address this problem. In Georgia, for example, political parties that include at least 30% of each gender on their electoral lists receive a 30% supplement from the state budget. Similarly, in Ireland, political parties lose 50% of their state funding if their candidate pool includes less than 30% of either gender.
Beyond financing constraints, women face high social and cultural barriers to political participation. In particular, greater care obligations, reinforced by public perceptions of a “woman’s role,” severely undermine women’s ability to run for public office.
These issues are difficult to address directly. One step that could help would be for male politicians to assume more care responsibilities, thereby making the playing field more level, while demonstrating that family is a high priority for everyone.
Likewise, new mothers should be able to bring their children to work. In 2015, a photo of Argentinian MP Victoria Donda Pérez breastfeeding while taking part in a parliamentary hearing went viral, as it demonstrated the commitment, capabilities, and challenges of working mothers. Such challenges were exemplified by the experience of Madeleine Henfling, a member of Germany’s Thuringia state parliament, who last month was barred from entering the legislative chamber with her six-week-old baby.
Concrete policies should also be put in place to support working parents, by giving them more flexibility to meet family responsibilities. That is why the United Kingdom’s House of Commons is considering introducing proxy voting, as part of a broader effort to give members – male and female – parental leave.
Women may also benefit from targeted training. UN Women’s recent Political Academy in Tunisia trained women candidates on local governance, the missions and roles of municipal councils, and media relations. Some may one day follow in the footsteps of Souad Abderrahim, who was elected the first woman mayor of Tunis with the support of the Islamist Ennahda Movement.
Some leaders have made powerful statements in support of greater female participation in government. In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave his country its first cabinet with an equal number of men and women. His Spanish counterpart Pedro Sánchez has gone a step further, appointing a cabinet where women outnumber men.
Political parties, which serve as gatekeepers for aspirants to public office, also have significant power to find creative ways to support women candidates. Nigeria’s two main parties, for example, will waive or reduce non-refundable nomination fees for the 2019 general election. One Cambodian party provides women candidates with basic campaign resources, including clothing and a bicycle.
In past Canadian elections, political parties have reimbursed women candidates for child-care and travel expenses, and provided subsidies to women seeking nomination in constituencies where a male incumbent is retiring. The New Democratic Party and Liberal Party have endeavored to have women candidates run for “winnable” open seats.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to gender inequality in politics. But there is plenty that can – and should – be done to ensure that women’s voices are heard.
Prime minister Ardern at the UN with her baby girl
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, gave a powerful speech at the UN this week which you can read about and listen to here.
Whether it was apartheid in South Africa, or nuclear testing in the Pacific, I grew up learning about my country and who we were by the way that we reacted to international events.
"Whether it was taking to the streets or changing our laws, we have seen ourselves as members of a community and one that we have a duty to use our voice within."
As foreshadowed she spoke at length about the importance of international institutions, particularly in combating global issues, like climate change.
"Any disintegration of multilateralism - any undermining of climate related targets and agreements aren't interesting footnotes in geopolitical history - they are catastrophic.
"That's why as a global community, not since the inception of the United Nations has there been a greater example of the importance of collective action and multilateralism, than climate change."
Amongst unprecedented global economic growth we have still seen a sense of isolation, dislocation, insecurity and the erosion of hope, she said.
And in case you missed it, here is this week's Gender Letter from Maya Salam:
Two doors. When Christine Blasey Ford and her husband remodeled their California home, she insisted on installing a second door — a second egress from which she could escape, if necessary.
It was a chilling detail amid her heart-wrenching testimony on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the world, in which she detailed a sexual assault she says she experienced three decades ago as a teenager at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court.
In the four years after the alleged assault, Dr. Blasey said she struggled academically and was unable to forge friendships. In the more than 30 years since, she said she’s been plagued by PTSD-like symptoms like anxiety, claustrophobia and panic.
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Amid all the political rancor of the week, I couldn’t help but think about a narrative that’s been repeating since the rise of #MeToo nearly a year ago: that these accusations tear down the reputations of prominent, well-respected men — that they ruin their legacy. “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed,” Judge Kavanaugh said on Thursday.
What seems an afterthought is that for millions of women, and men, who have endured this sort of violence, the toll is life-altering, even life-derailing, from the moment it happens. It’s trauma that doesn’t have a term limit.
This dynamic was illustrated more than once this week, first with the sentencing — of three to 10 years in prison — of Bill Cosby, whose victim, Andrea Constand, released a harrowing impact statement.
“When the sexual assault happened, I was a young woman brimming with confidence and looking forward to a future bright with possibilities,” she said. “Now, almost 15 years later, I’m a middle-aged woman who’s been stuck in a holding pattern for most of her adult life, unable to heal fully or to move forward.”
“Bill Cosby took my beautiful, healthy young spirit and crushed it,” she said.
Then in an Op-Ed this week titled “I Was Raped at 16 and I Kept Silent,” the TV host and model Padma Lakshmi said she understood why women waited years to disclose sexual assault — because she did just that, even though she had suffered immeasurably.
“Some say a man shouldn’t pay a price for an act he committed as a teenager. But the woman pays the price for the rest of her life, and so do the people who love her,” she wrote.
On Friday, the committee advanced Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate, but not without a hitch. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said he would not support final confirmation until the F.B.I. investigates the accusations, a request Senate Republicans bowed to, delaying the vote by up to a week.
The F.B.I.’s findings, if any, may well help senators determine whom they believe, and whether Judge Kavanaugh will get the rare opportunity — for the rest of his lifetime — to restore his reputation from the highest court in the United States.
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