‘Gendered Vulnerability’ and representation in United States politics

com.google.Chrome.9qkdtj (1)The United States is in the midst of its 2018 midterm election cycle, and one of the most striking features of this year’s elections is the unusually high number of women who have elected to run for office. The U.S. falls short of many of its peers in terms of gender representation in government, but women seem poised to make gains this November. Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt discuss their new book, Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, which argues women’s perception of a more difficult electoral landscape leads them to adopt distinct, and more constituent-oriented, legislative strategies than their male counterparts.

Elections in the US

In the United States, elections are much more candidate-centered than in many European countries. In most U.S. elections, candidates decide for themselves whether to run for office, and do not need the approval of party leaders. Candidates raise their own campaign funds (at the Congressional level candidates need a lot of money, more than $1 million U.S. at least), and are also responsible for conducting the re-election campaign itself. Additionally, U.S. candidates contest two elections in each cycle – first a primary election in which candidates within a party compete against each other for the right to be the party’s nominee, and later a general election in which the several nominees compete for the office in question. Altogether, politicians in the United States have huge electoral responsibilities which they shoulder largely on their own.

U.S. politicians therefore use the perks and powers of their office to help themselves win re-election. For members of Congress, this takes many forms. For example, members devote a lot of energy to procuring government spending which benefits their local communities, and they work to impress constituents as much as to make good national policy. Members have a formal budget for communicating with constituents and travelling back and forth between Washington and their home communities so they can attend local events and meet with local groups. Members also have staff devoted specifically to helping constituents solve problems they’re having with the federal bureaucracy.

In our book, we argue that female members of Congress are much more constituent-oriented than male members are, leading them to do all of these things more than men do.

Gendered Vulnerability

Women adopt these legislative strategies for two primary reasons. First, their path to winning re-election is more difficult than men’s paths, on average. When running for re-election, female members of Congress face more challengers than men, and the challengers they face tend to be better funded and more experienced in politics. Female candidates for office also do not receive the same type of media coverage as male candidates; stories about them tend to be more negative in tone and focus on peripheral aspects of their candidacy such as their clothing choices, or how the campaign has affected their families. Women also tend to receive less support from party leaders during the campaign. Combined, these factors mean that women have a harder time winning re-election than men do.

These electoral concerns are exacerbated by both internal and external gender socialisation forces. Numerous studies across a range of fields find women are more likely to express self-doubts and are less likely to rate themselves as qualified to do a job or task as men are. Studies also find that women are less likely than men to be positively evaluated by others. These concerns revealed themselves when we conducted interviews with Capitol Hill staffers and members of Congress; we were particularly interested in speaking with staff who had worked for both male and female bosses. Two themes emerged: first, female members were much more worried about being questioned and challenged by their colleagues, potential challengers, and constituents. For example, one staffer explained, ‘Women are worried about giving the wrong answer. Men are not because people forget. Women want to not be seen as uninformed because of the more stringent lens they are viewed through to be seen as experts. Being aware is drawing challengers.’ Second, female members simply worked harder, in large part to try and forestall potential challenges to their positions. Staffers spoke of how their female members, in a way they simply did not see with their male bosses, would prepare for every hearing and every meeting to ensure they were ready and able to address any potential concerns.

These twin forces – increased difficulty winning re-election and a lower level of self-confidence generally – underlie a general perception that due to their gender, women have to work harder to win re-election than men do. We call this perception ‘gendered vulnerability,’ and argue that it leads to clear differences between how male and female legislators approach the legislative process. Women adopt a more constituent-oriented focus, which provides concrete benefits to their constituents.

Gender & Legislative Activity and Outputs

We examined almost a dozen different legislative behaviours which affect constituents. For each activity, we found that women either do more of it, or approach the activity in a manner which is more in line with constituents’ policy preferences.

For example, in the United States members of Congress undertake a number of formal activities designed to aid individual constituents. Members allocate staff that work solely in the district the member represents, and these staff attend to constituents’ interests, including navigating the federal bureaucracy, procuring governmental benefits, and other issues of concern. Members also frequently spend time in their districts meeting with constituents, and given the individualised nature of re-election campaigns, use a number of platforms to communicate with voters about their activities in office. We found, on average, women do more of these constituent-based activities than men. Female members place more of their staff in district offices to aid constituents, and also take more trips back to their districts. Women also send more mailings to constituents to tout their accomplishments.

Women also ensure their constituents’ interests are represented in other ways. Members of Congress devote considerable energy to procuring government spending for local projects in their districts, which can ingratiate members with voters. Consistently, women procure more such projects than men do. This is true whether we look at projects that members have control over themselves (earmarks), or projects which members procure in conjunction with a bureaucratic agency. Similarly, female members are more likely to serve on committees that reflect the broad needs of their district than male members, and thus provide additional opportunities to secure needed resources and policy changes.

We also looked at the way members of Congress approach the legislative process. Many elements of the legislative process allow members to take positions on issues which will please their voters, including the writing and introduction of bills and resolutions, the endorsement of others’ bills (known as a co-sponsorship), and voting on legislation. We find that, first, women are simply more active in the legislative process – they introduce both more bills and resolutions, and are more active in cosponsorship than men; this activity means they are sending more signals to voters via the legislative process than men are. Second, the bills women introduce are more reflective of their constituents’ needs and interests than the bills men introduce. Third, women’s voting records are more in line with their constituents’ policy preferences than the voting records of male members.

Taken together, these gender differences all point in the same direction: female members of Congress appear to be more attentive to constituents than men are.

Broader Effects

Previous studies of gender and legislative activity tend to focus on whether women are better at representing women’s interests than men are, and the answer is a resounding yes. These studies show that women are more likely to introduce or support legislation related to so-called ‘women’s issues’ (traditionally perceived as influencing children, the family, or home life.) But our study asked a broader question about gender and representation: do female politicians better reflect all of their constituents’ needs than men do? We thus examined a range of issue areas, including agriculture, defence, and criminal justice, as well as a range of constituent-oriented activities that legislators perform for all of the members of their districts. In our analysis we consistently found that female legislators use the panoply of legislative activities to more actively and faithfully serve their constituents, both in terms of providing direct benefits as well as securing substantive policy changes that will aid the people in their districts.

While this constituent-focused orientation benefits the voters female politicians represent, it likely does not benefit female politicians themselves. The time women spend on constituent related activities may detract from their ability to devote time to larger or broader goals. These might include long-term legislative initiatives, or the pursuit of a leadership position within the chamber. Female members of Congress may feel trapped in terms of the policy areas they can focus on – if a woman has strong policy ideas for new ways to, say, regulate the banking industry, she may not be able to devote a lot of time to developing legislation in that area if banking regulation is not salient among her voters. Gendered vulnerability is therefore very much a double-edged sword, potentially limiting women’s options in Congress, even while it spurs them to better represent their constituents.

About the authors

Jeffrey Lazarus is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. 

Amy Steigerwalt is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University.

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