Do parliaments underrepresent women’s policy preferences?

Exploring gender equality in policy congruence in 21 European democracies


Women tend to care about different issues than men (e.g. Dahlerup 1988, Mansbridge 1999, Schwindt-Bayer and Mishler 2005) and female citizens seem to exhibit more liberal ideological orientations than men with regard to a broad set of policy areas, for example environment or redistribution (Inglehart and Norris 2000, Gidengil, Blais, and Nadeau 2003). Do MPs represent these distinct policy preferences of women to the same degree as those of men? In our recent publication at Journal of European Public Policy, we shed light on this question and the factors explaining why parliaments might more accurately reflect the policy preferences of one gender. Building on both the European Values Study and the Chapel Hill Expert Survey, we investigate policy preference congruence in seven policy areas - views on the free market, welfare state redistribution, the environment, lifestyles, immigration, multiculturalism and religious principles - capturing the diversity of women’s policy positions outside traditional feminist issues in 21 European Democracies.


It comes with no surprise, that traditionally excluded groups struggle to reach equal representation in modern democracies (e.g. Griffin and Newman 2005, Griffin, Newman, and Wolbrecht 2012), and hence it is reasonable to expect that women’s preferences are less well mirrored by national parliaments compared to those of male citizens. However, contrary to this anticipation, we find that parliaments tend to represent women’s policy preferences slightly more accurately than those of men. While parliaments might still discount feminist issues such as childcare and equal pay for the various reasons explored in the literature, paradoxically, the policy positions of elected officials in Western European countries largely reflect women’s preferences concerning issues such as immigration, religious principles, redistribution, the free market, and lifestyles.


A factor that suggest itself as affecting the size of the gender gap in policy preference congruence is the share of women in parliaments as it is widely believed that the gender of elected representatives influences their legislative preferences (Phillips 1995). Female officeholders tend to transform institutional norms, political discourse, and the policy agenda (e.g. Dahlerup 1988). Hence, equal shares of male and female legislators are frequently interpreted as a necessary condition for the meaningful representation of their preferences. However, we find no empirical support for this proposition. In fact, our analyses reveal that the representation of women’s preferences (if understood in the broad sense rather than traditional women’s issues) does not hinge on the numerical strength of women.


Although the representation of women’s policy preferences is not a direct function of their numerical strength in parliaments, it is still contingent on another form of presence: women’s propensity to turn out to vote. If the proximity of voters to a party’s policy position influences the choice at the ballot box (Downs 1957), sincere male and female voters should support the party whose position is closest to their own. In consequence, the more women turn out to vote in parliamentary elections, the better MPs reflect their preferred issue opinions and our analyses show that parliaments indeed tend to mirror women’s policy preferences most accurately in countries with large proportions of female voters.


With these surprising findings, our study contributes to theoretical and normative debates about the quality of the representation of women’s preferences in parliaments. When we consider a more diverse set of policy preferences beyond typically gendered issues, we find a much higher level of policy preference congruence between women and MPs than expected, despite comparably low levels of presence. Thus, the causal link between the share of female legislators and the representation of their preferences is not at proximal as previously hypothesized.

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Author: Sarah C. Dingler in March 2018

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