In This Article Gender, Behavior, and Representation

  • Introduction
  • Early Contributions
  • Landmark Monographs
  • Journals

Political Science Gender, Behavior, and Representation
by
Elisabeth Gidengil
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0010

Introduction

Discussions of gender, behavior, and representation have been dominated by the notion of a “gender gap.” The term simply refers to a significant sex difference in political orientations or political behavior. It became a staple of political commentary in the wake of the 1980 US presidential election when a gap of eight percentage points separated women and men in their vote for Ronald Reagan, with women being much less likely than men to vote for the Republican candidate. This gap encouraged quantitatively oriented feminist scholars to start focusing on gender as a factor in understanding voting behavior and political preference. Since then, many studies have revealed that women tend to be more supportive of government intervention to help those in need, more resistant to the use of force, more “dovish” on military matters, and more tolerant of new lifestyles and changing moral values than men. Similar gaps have appeared across time and across surveys, and research done in other established Western democracies confirms that these gender gaps are a more pervasive phenomenon. Studies have also shown that women are typically less interested in politics, less knowledgeable about political matters, feel less politically efficacious than men, and are less likely to express political opinions. Yet despite these indications that women are less politically engaged, male-female differences in political activity are typically quite modest. This contrasts with the gender gap at the elite level. Concern with the lack of women in elected office has led to studies that seek to account for women’s underrepresentation and examine whether having more women in legislatures affects legislative behavior and policy outcomes. It is important to recognize that there are some potential pitfalls in pursuing research on the gender gap phenomenon, including the risk of categorical thinking, reinforcing gender stereotypes, and inviting normative comparisons. It can give rise to a female-centered perspective that risks overlooking the fact that gender influences men’s political orientations and behavior as well. Moreover, when we ask why women’s political behavior and political orientations differ from men’s—rather than the other way around—we implicitly assume a male norm. Focusing on male-female differences can also lead to a neglect of the differences among women, which often exceed those between women and men. Note that this article follows much of the literature in using the term “gender” in referring to any male-female differences and not just those that are socially constructed. Note also that the focus is mainly on established Western democracies.

Early Contributions

Duverger 1955 presents a useful portrait of the role played by women in elections and in political leadership at a time when these topics attracted little scholarly attention. Note that Duverger 1955 was careful in drawing inferences, observing for example that similarity in the votes of husbands and wives should not necessarily be taken to mean that the wives were submitting to the husband’s will; they could just as well be influencing the husband’s vote. Bourque and Grossholtz 1974 and Goot and Reid 1975 provide extended critiques of the treatment of women in some of the discipline’s classic studies of voting and political behavior. Both serve as a useful reminder of some of the pitfalls of comparing women to men.

  • Bourque, Susan C., and Jean Grossholtz. “Politics as Unnatural Practice: Political Science Looks at Female Participation.” Politics and Society 4.2 (Winter 1974): 225–266.

    DOI: 10.1177/003232927400400205E-mail Citation »

    A useful critique of the early political science literature on gender disparities in political participation that discusses how the classic studies distorted women’s participation in politics.

  • Duverger, Maurice. The Political Role of Women. Paris: UNESCO, 1955.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the first extended analysis of women’s political behavior. Based on reports from France, West Germany, Norway, and Yugoslavia, it found that women were slightly less likely than men to vote, slightly more conservative, and more influenced by their religion. But the book emphasized that the differences were small.

  • Goot, Murray, and Elizabeth Reid. Women and Voting Studies: Mindless Matrons or Sexist Scientism? Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1975.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a critique of the early literature on voting behavior questioning the interpretation of the findings and the conclusions reached.

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