In the Blog
Gender and Deliberation
Photo: Arturo Yee
Right now, Justin Trudeau and the rest of the newly elected Liberal Party are deciding who will be in the Cabinet. He has promised that one half of the members of that Cabinet will be women. Why does that matter? Symbolically, women are half the population and representing them in Parliament sends a message about who is important. Just as significant, the number of women in a group can change what decisions the group makes, and how it makes those decisions.
Professor Tali Mendelberg is a researcher at Princeton University. Her research interests include political communication and experimental methods but she is best known for her work on race, class, and gender. Her acclaimed book The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality has been called “the best book published in the United States on government, politics or international affairs.” Her latest book, The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation and Institutions, has won a number of awards since its publication in 2014. The research for that book is what I want to talk about today. We all know that while women make up about half of the population (around 49%), they are underrepresented in politics and business. In the United States, for example, women consistently make up about 20% of the members in decision-making bodies, whether at the federal level, the state level, or even on city councils. Internationally, the story is quite similar, with the exception of the Nordic countries, a group that includes Norway and Iceland, which average closer to 40% (the reason for this is still being debated), and Rwanda, which has the only majority-female legislature in the world (they have quotas for women’s participation, and 70% of the population is female).
So, in terms of pure numbers, there is a large gap between the number of women in the population and the number of women in positions to make decisions about how people in their countries live. In theory, people in power should be able to take the needs of all kinds of different people into account when they make decisions, but in reality, who has power is a reflection on who matters in society. People often talk about the value of representation, of the importance of “seeing someone like me” running in an election. Professor Mendelberg says, “Why [representation] matters on a symbolic level is that any minority that is not represented in a meaningful way is a subject and not a citizen of the political system.”
Beyond just seeing people in powerful positions, Professor Mendelberg believes that if we had a different group of people in a decision-making body, like in Parliament, that body might make different decisions. According to a talk she gave at Princeton University, if you ask American women to identify the most important problem facing the nation, they will tell you something very different than American men. Women are 80 percent more likely than men to mention poverty or homelessness. They are more likely to talk about children than immigration, gas prices, or defense spending. Men will put children last on a list of national priorities. Because women are the vast majority of workers in care-based fields like teaching and nursing, people often think that women would make more caring decisions if they were in a position to do so.
Another theory is that if women were more accurately represented in decision-making bodies it might change how decisions are made. Women are usually considered more averse to conflict, and more likely to come to decisions based on consensus, rather than by forcing their opinions on the group. So we have belief in the importance of a symbolic level of representation, and a theory that more inclusive decision making processes would change not only what decisions are made, but also how they are made. Professor Tali Mendelberg set out to measure how these ideas look in reality. Mendelberg’s study asked the question: “What if a decision-making group was more than 20% women (the figure that is the average in American Congress). What if women made up 40% of the group, or 80%, or what if the group was only made up of women?”
In her study, she asked groups of five individuals to set a poverty line for families. How generous should society be to the poorest people? She recruited people from two very different cities, one in New Jersey and one in Utah, divided them into groups of five, with different numbers of men and women (some had five women, some had one). They had to choose an option about how much money would go to the lowest income section of society, and they had to set a poverty line.
Some of the groups were required to come to a unanimous decision, where everyone in the group had to agree in order for a decision to be made. Other groups were allowed to base their decision on the opinion of the majority.
Before the experiment started Professor Mendelberg and her research partners expected that unanimous rule would elevate women’s role in the group because it would give every member a basic level of influence. If even one member of a group did not agree with the decision, the group would not move forward. On the other hand, they expected majority rule to elevate women’s influence when they were the majority in the group because they would have the numbers to choose what appealed to them.
They specifically choose to only study women in this group, and not to study race, so all the participants were white. In order to study the effect of race or sexual orientation, the experiment will have to be repeated using every combination imaginable of gender and race, a project that will take years. So, what did the experiment find?
While the groups debated the poverty line, the researchers counted every single interruption to a person speaking in the group. They coded each as either negative or positive. When women were the majority, they received fewer negative interruptions. They also received fewer negative interruptions when they were the minority and it was a unanimous process. Essentially, women were interrupted less when they had higher standing in the group. There was a hint that women with higher standing outside of the experiment (a female graduate student at a table full of undergraduate men, for example) might be interrupted less within the experiment.
When women were the large majority in a group deciding by majority rule they spoke as frequently as men. In all other configurations, they spoke less. Think about groups you see making decisions every day, think of your school, your city, think of Parliament. How often is there a large majority of women? If this experiment holds true to real life, women in groups are almost always speaking less than the men. But how often did people talk about care issues? When there were many women and the group was deciding by majority, women introduced more care topics and set a more generous poverty line. When women were a minority in a group deciding by majority, they introduced fewer care topics, and were interrupted more frequently. But when women were the minority and the decision had to be unanimous they spoke more and introduced more care issues. The number of women affected what decisions the groups made.
Here’s a fascinating point. In a situation where men were the minority and the group was deciding by majority, men adopted the women’s care agenda. That is, they were more likely to talk about care issues like children and families. Unanimous decision making always empowered the minority—so when men were the minority in unanimous decision making groups, they talked more and those groups adopted decisions closer to the men’s opinions. Numbers matter whether you are a man or a woman.
Researchers have just begun to collect evidence for these patterns, but already this research points to the importance of who has authority in the group, the rules we use to make decisions (by unanimity or by majority), and how that effects the voices of minorities and less empowered groups. Mendelberg suspects that in the real world, the interruptions and hijacking of conversation by the majority has the effect of putting a chill on women’s confidence, so that women doubt the value of their contribution, even when they are just as qualified as men. Statistics bear this out, showing that women are very likely to volunteer but not to run for office.
Let’s go back to Canada’s most recent election. 88 female MP’s were elected. That’s 26%—well below the threshold for changing women’s standing in the group. What about Trudeau’s gender-balanced Cabinet? Fifty percent doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be seeing a radical care agenda, but it gives those women higher status, sends a strong symbolic message about who matters in Canadian politics, and if the Cabinet is taking a vote, there’s a strong likelihood that women’s concerns will have to be met if anyone wants a majority. Whether the Cabinet is also going to have rules against interruptions and unanimity, I’ll leave to Mr. Trudeau.