What If the Majority of Legislators Were Women?

Some interesting new research bears on this question:

On average, women make up about 20 percent of lawmakers in the United States and abroad. We found that when women constituted 20 percent of a decision-making body that operates by majority rule, the average woman took up only about 60 percent of the floor time used by the average man. Women were perceived — by themselves and their peers — as more quiescent and less effective. They were more likely to be rudely interrupted; they were less likely to strongly advocate their policy preferences; and they seldom mentioned the vulnerable. These gender dynamics held even when adjusting for political ideology (beliefs about liberalism and egalitarianism) and income. In contrast, the men in our experiment did not speak up less or appear to lose influence when they were in the minority.

From political scientists Tali Mendelberg and Chris Karpowitz, discussed in their New York Times piece.

3 Responses to What If the Majority of Legislators Were Women?

  1. Lynn Sanders November 9, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Great work by Tali and Chris. The Campaign Stops summary suggests that parity alone won’t do it: (“…once women made up 60 to 80 percent or more of a group, they spoke as much as men” etc.). This is depressing – is it right?

  2. Phil C. November 11, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    I served a career in the military and this sounds familiar. Where women were vastly outnumbered, men marginalized their contribution and the women felt like they needed to act more masculine to fit in; or they kept quiet. I would imagine that similar behavior exists in any closed system with a minority population and a dominant majority.

  3. Tali Mendelberg November 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi Lynn, right, in groups using majority rule, we don’t see gender parity in floor time until women compose 60 – 80% of the group. That holds both in a sample of actual school board minutes and in our experiment (which randomly assigned gender composition). However, in groups governed by a norm of consensus, women are *better* off as a numerical minority than as a clear majority, and women in a minority reach gender parity. We found this when we analyzed the data in Kathy Cramer-Walsh’s book on actual race dialogue groups (Talking About Race), and in our experimental groups. We can achieve gender parity in participation when women are few, by using inclusive discussion norms and procedures. I view that as an encouraging conclusion. In addition, we found that confidence matters to women’s participation, so enhancing women’s self-assurance might also help alleviate gender inequality when women are few.

    Phil C., thanks. We’ve read similar personal experiences from other readers, on news sites as varied as New York Times, Jezebel.com, and Huffington Post. They include college students, bankers and IT professionals. By the way, even high-achieving and highly-qualified women in politics may be reluctant to participate in predominantly-male discussions; Madeline Albright implies as much about herself in her autobiographical writings.