When Women Make A Difference. Gender Gaps in the European Parliament
Women are more compassionate, cooperative, and caring, something inside us says. Women care while men compete. Women connect where men are ‘going solo’. Women are
emotional when men are rational. Of course – these are stereotypes; alleged differences that justify male domination. But it is as it often is: thoughts become reality. Across a variety of
issues, women’s attitudes and actions differ from men’s: in Western societies, women are more likely to endorse social welfare policies (Blekesaune and Quadagno 2003; Schlesinger and Heldman
2001; Kaufmann and Petrocik 1999), express more concern toward the environment (Sunström and McCright 2013; McCright 2010; Shapiro and Mahajan 1986), are less supportive of the use of violence
(Eichenberg 2003; Conover and Sapiro 1993; Smith 1984), and more skeptical toward the virtues of free trade (Bernauer and Nguyen 2015; Beaulieu and Napier 2008; Mayda and Rodrik 2005). In short,
women are more leftist than men, research says.
This insight became known as the ‘modern gender gap’. Evidence on gendered differences in general publics are beyond dispute these days. But what happens if we shift attention from mass to elite level? From an extremely heterogeneous pool of citizens to the highly selective sample of representatives? Does gender still matter? Do female representatives differ from their male (party) colleagues in their attitudes and actions?
We know surprisingly little about this. To fill the void, I shed light on potential gender gaps among Members of the European Parliament (MEP s). MEP survey data on the one hand and Roll Call Vote (RCV) data on the other enable me to simultaneously trace attitudinal and behavioral differences of Members of the 6th European Parliament (EP, 2005-09). I investigate representatives’ attitudes and actions across six policy areas. Areas that are gender-divided at citizen level and go beyond a narrow conceptualization of women’s interests: gender equality, social welfare policies, the environment, international trade, foreign policy, and development assistance.
To illuminate potential gender gaps in the attitudes of representatives, I draw on data from the EPRG MEP Survey conducted in 2006 (Farell, Hix, and Scully 2011). Questions included in this survey attempt to gauge legislators’ ideological positions and their attitudes toward a wide array of policy issues. For each policy area under scrutiny, I select suitable questions and conduct logistic regressions on the respective item scores (including fixed effects for the European Party Group an MEP belongs to).
The second step of my analysis of gender gaps in the EP moves on to actions, asking: do male and female representatives differ in their actual voting behavior? RCV data of the 6th EP (Hix, Noury, and Roland 2006) enables me to answer this question. Using W-NOMINATE (Poole and Rosenthal 1985), a special scaling method, I estimate MEPs’ ideal points across all policy areas taken together and in the six policy areas mentioned above. Regressions on these ideal point estimates with gender as independent variable and EPG affiliation and nationality as control variables shed light on gendered differences.
So, what does this two-step analysis of attitudes and actions reveal? Do female MEPs think and act differently from their male colleagues? Yes – and no. Yes, within European party groups and national delegations, female legislators cast more leftist votes than their male counterparts – both overall (considering all votes registered in the 6th European Parliament) and in the areas of gender equality, social welfare, and environmental policy. Thus, women are more likely to support stronger environmental regulation, to favor redistribution, and to endorse women’s rights.
But no, not all policy areas I put under scrutiny display gendered differences. And no, the existing differences in legislative behavior are not necessarily grounded in attitudinal differences. The analysis of MEP survey data reveals a gender gap with regard to gender equality issues. Being asked to position themselves on abortion rights or gender quotas, female representatives are, on average, more likely to take a leftist stance. As FIGURE 1 shows, this effect is driven by women in the EPP-ED (European People’s Party – European Democrats) party group voting more liberally than their male colleagues (the same picture emerges when analyzing MEP’s positions on gender quotas).
Figure 1: Predicted Probabilities for Supporting Abortion Rights
Yet, attitudes toward other issues are aligned. How to explain this ‘broken mirror’ where actions do not reflect attitudes? A follow-up analysis of MEP attitudes
suggests: women in the EP feel a special responsibility to represent women as a group. This perceived obligation toward women as a special constituency – rather than specific substantial
attitudes – possibly explains the motivation of female representatives to act for women.
These findings suggest: gender matters. ‘Politics of presence’ have more than a symbolic function – they make a substantive difference. Women in parliament are more likely to act for women in society. It is a risky endeavor to take differences center stage; highlighting them might nourish stereotypes entrenched in our collective mind. So, why focus on them? Because they are here, they are an empirical observation. They do not fade because we decide to ignore them. But it is on us to decide whether we opt for an interpretation of democracy that embraces differences – or for a reproduction of patriarchy, hiding perspectives that do not conform with current modes of thinking and acting. Hence, for a well-functioning democracy it is vital to include differences existing in the citizenry in the political decision-making process.
For this purpose, making differences visible is a crucial first step. Indeed, equal representation of women in democratic decision-making processes is an end in itself – irrespective of whether women think or act differently than men; demands of equity require 50 percent of the decision-makers to be women. Yet, proving that female representatives make a substantive difference lends even more vigor to gender equality claims. If women hold a different point of view – with distinctive values, attitudes and concerns – it is imperative to include women to the same degree as men in decision-making processes. If differences between male and female legislators exist and women and men are not represented equally, genuine democracy is beyond reach. This is why gender matters.
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