September 29, 2022

In the face of hostility from political parties, women parliamentarians can be the solution –

As part of APSA’s public scholarship program, graduate political science students produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Angie Torres-Beltran, covers new article by James Adams, University of California, Davis, David Bracken, University of California, Davis, Noam Gidron, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Will Horne, Princeton University, Diana Z. O’Brien, Rice University and Kaitlin Senk , Rice University, Can’t we all get along? How Women Parliamentarians Can Improve Affective Polarization in Western Audiences”.

In recent years, partisan polarization has taken more hostile forms. Indeed, many supporters of political parties show intense animosity towards members of opposition parties. From the January 6 U.S. Capitol uprising to the murder of British lawmaker Jo Cox during the 2016 Brexit campaign, polarization has been linked to heightened forms of mistrust and hostility toward members of opposing parties. In a new article published in the American Political Science Review, the authors demonstrate the depolarizing potential of women parliamentarians in 20 countries. Their research reveals that the presence of women on parliamentary party delegations is associated with less partisan hostility towards those parties, and that both men and women react positively to women parliamentarians.

The authors suggest that supporters of one political party tend to have warmer feelings towards other rival parties that elect more women to parliament. This could be because female politicians employ more collaborative and consensual leadership styles that defuse hostility from their opponents, or because citizens and journalists stereotype women as more caring and consensual. In both cases, the descriptive representation of women – ie the presence of women in elective office – could provide an “emotional bonus” to political parties by defusing animosity and hostility among their opponents. This means that who is elected is important in understanding party relationships.

To test their affective bonus hypothesis, the authors combine an original dataset on the descriptive representation of women at the party level with survey data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems in 125 political parties for 20 Western democracies between 1996 and 2017. The original dataset contains information on the number of female parliamentarians in a party’s parliamentary delegation. Data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems survey asks respondents about their own party identification and their positive or negative view of parties in their country.

“The results are promising for policymakers, as they suggest that parties can defuse animosity while providing better descriptive gender representation.” The results suggest that a greater representation of women in a party’s parliamentary delegation considerably warms the feelings of opponents towards that party. In other words, all other things being equal, when a political party elects more women to the legislature, supporters of opposing parties have more positive feelings about that party. This is especially true for citizens on the left, who feel better about parties that have more female politicians.

Overall, the authors demonstrate that the gender composition of elected political parties has important implications for distrust and hostility between parties. The results are promising for policymakers, as they suggest that parties can defuse animosity while providing better descriptive gender representation. But this affective bonus can also have drawbacks. Women in politics are particularly likely to bear the brunt of partisan rancor, and extremist or illiberal parties could strategically deploy these findings to improve their image and attract more voters.