Men still dominate political decision-making in the United Kingdom. Women hold just one or two seats on prestigious select committees in the House of Commons, like Defence, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. No women sit on the Domestic and Economic Affairs cabinet committee. And 95% of all local councils have majority-men membership.
Yet voters do care about women’s leadership in elected office. My research shows that when women are absent from political decision-making, voters view governments as less legitimate.
New research on voters’ views of government decisions
Amanda Clayton (University of California, Berkeley), Diana O’Brien (Washington University in St. Louis), and I study citizens’ attitudes about political representation.
We find that citizens strongly prefer that political decision-making bodies have gender parity, meaning that they have equal numbers of men and women. Even when governments require gender quotas for women candidates, citizens still prefer to see gender parity amongst officeholders.
We conducted experiments using public opinion surveys. In these survey experiments, different respondents saw different news articles, but then everyone answered the same set of questions. This allows us to compare how the different articles shaped participants’ responses.
In our first study, the article was a fictional news story about an 8-member legislative committee making a policy decision. We used graphic design software to make our news story look real: it had a headline, photos of the committee’s members, and a narrative.
In one version, the committee was all men and we used only male photos. In another version, the committee had gender balance, and we used photos of four men and four women. Otherwise, the story was the same.
After respondents saw either the all-male version or the gender-balanced version, we asked them questions about the committee’s decision-making process. Did they think the committee’s procedures were fair? Did they think the committee’s composition was fair? And, did they think the committee could be trusted? These questions all measure ‘democratic legitimacy’—the extent to which citizens accept political decisions and are willing to follow them.
People trust decisions made by gender-balanced committees
We found that respondents who saw the gender-balanced committee rated that group as more fair and more trustworthy when compared to respondents who saw the all-male committee. People also expressed much more willingness to accept the gender-balanced committee’s decision.
Even more, the gender-balanced committee wasn’t just favoured by women and voters on the left—the two groups usually most associated with supporting women in office. Men and conservatives also preferred the gender-balanced group to the all-male group.
In a second study, we examined whether preferences for the gender-balanced committee changed if people were told that women had obtained gender parity thanks to a rule that insisted on equality – a quota.
This time, our fictional news story featured a local council making a policy decision. In addition to the versions where the council could be all-male or gender-balanced, we added a third version, in which the gender-balanced council was ‘quota elected’. Participants read one of three possible descriptions of the council:
- The council is composed of all men
- The council is composed of four men and four women
- The council is composed of four women and four women, following a new rule that requires parties to run equal numbers of female and male candidates.
The original study was performed in the United States, but our follow-up experiment was performed in 8 countries—including the United Kingdom.
Our results build on the first study. Looking at council’s decision-making procedures, respondents viewed the gender-balanced council as the most fair and the all-male council as the least fair. They viewed the quota-elected gender-balanced council as slightly less fair relative to the ‘regular’ gender-balanced council—but still as much fairer than the all-male council.
Said another way, participants did not overly penalize the quota-elected council for attaining gender parity through a mandate. And they viewed a council with gender parity obtained via a quota as far more legitimate than a council composed entirely of men.
When women are represented in elected office, even with quotas in place, the institutions are seen as more fair, more trustworthy, and ultimately more democratic.
Citizens like the result of quotas
Our results counter critics who claim that gender quotas would diminish the quality of political representation. We find the opposite: citizens like quotas’ results, because women’s presence indicates that governments are working for everyone.
These results follow other studies showing that gender quotas enhance, rather than diminish, democratic outcomes. For example, when gender quotas lead to more women in office, women citizens express more trust in government and more satisfaction with democracy. Women citizens may be especially aware that, when more women are in office, policy becomes more responsive to their needs.
Right now, the Welsh Parliament / Senedd is undertaking an electoral reform, with gender parity rules likely to be introduced. From my research, I can say that the evidence linking women’s presence to improvements in democratic legitimacy is clear.
Find out more about women in government