The evidence supporting the idea that male and female legislators have different communication styles has mostly come from interviews with legislators rather than analysis of speeches given in parliament. Analysing speeches delivered in the UK House of Commons between 1997 and 2016, Lotte Hargrave and Tone Langengen found compelling evidence for differences: women are more likely to evidence arguments with personal experience, discuss policies in a more concrete way, and are less adversarial than men. They argue these findings have important implications for how political communication styles might improve public engagement with politicians, offer a different focus to the discussion, and improve democratic legitimacy.
As countries respond to COVID-19, media outlets have widely reported that female leaders seem to have a leadership style that is better suited to responding to the crisis than that of their male counterparts. In academic literature too, the claims that male and female legislators might have different approaches to ‘doing politics’ have long existed. A key dimension upon which men and women are said to differ is with respect to their communication styles. So far however, the evidence base supporting this idea of gender differences in styles is mainly rooted in the testimonies of politicians themselves. In these interviews, women are said to evidence their arguments differently, have more concrete orientations when discussing policies and politics, and to be less adversarial or aggressive.
In our newly published paper in the journal Politics & Gender, The Gendered Debate: Do Men and Women Communicate Differently in the House of Commons?, we build upon these insights. Specifically, we set about measuring whether there are differences in the communication styles of male and female legislators in the UK House of Commons through analysis of almost 200 parliamentary speeches delivered between 1997 and 2016 on three policy areas: education, immigration, and welfare.
Speechmaking is an important setting for analysis, as it is one of the most visible elements of a politician’s job, and receives significant media coverage. Speeches therefore have important implications for how policies are discussed and informed, how the public engages with political elites, and how legislators represent their constituents.
In our paper, we measure three distinct indicators of style. First, argumentation captures the strategies men and women use to evidence their arguments. We test the argument that women tend to make greater use of personal and anecdotal experience, whereas men focus more on facts and numbers. Second, orientation captures how men and women focus their discussion of issues and policies. Women are said to be more likely to orient their discussions to concrete and specific groups and people (such as single mothers, low income families or students), whereas men are said to orient their discussion of policies and politics in terms of abstract issues (such as the economy, the system, or the state). Third, adversarial language captures behaviour such as insulting others or engaging in political point-scoring, which men are thought to use more often.
In order to identify whether there are gender differences, we studied politicians’ speeches in legislative debates within three parliamentary sessions: 1997-98, 2005-06, and 2015-16. We qualitatively coded each individual MP’s speech. We identified the proportion of each speech that was characterised by each of our style types. Taking the percentage measures, as opposed to the counts, overcomes the difficulties posed for analysis by the fact that men tend to make more speeches than women. Instead, we identify the relative degree to which men’s and women’s speeches are marked by these styles, rather than the overall number of times such styles appear.
With this coding of the speeches in hand, there are two main inferential concerns for examining our primary quantity of interest: the difference between men and women (for interested readers, we outline further details in the paper). First, we know that men and women MPs differ from one another with respect to several institutional factors beyond gender, such as their time spent in parliament, their party, or whether they are part of the government or opposition. If any of these features are correlated with style, then we might worry that any differences we observe might be attributable to these factors. In our analysis, we therefore control for these other individual-level covariates.
Second, some styles are likely to be used at a greater rate by all MPs in certain debates, and there is evidence that men and women might participate in different types of debates. Therefore, it might be challenging to identify whether we are picking up individuals engaging with different topics or talking about the same topics in different ways. To alleviate this problem, we examine only within-debate variation in men’s and women’s styles. This ensures we narrow our focus to gender differences in style only when men and women are discussing the same substantive topic.
A gendered difference in political style?
Do men and women have different political styles? In the figure below, we plot the differences between men and women for each of our style types of interest. Positive values indicate that a style is used more by women, and negative values indicate higher use of the style by men.
Figure 1: Gender differences in communication styles
For all three of our main categories, we see there are gender differences. For argumentation, experience is positive – indicating women use more of this style. For instance, women make greater use of personal experiences: ‘I am the daughter of economic migrants, and I take exception to the tone sometimes used to describe such people’ or the experience of others: ‘I have come to that conclusion based on a number of constituency cases, as well as the experience of a member of my wider family who has adopted a child’. However, we see no gender differences in use of facts. Men and women clearly use facts to a similar degree, for example: ‘Since 1997, Labour’s macro-economic policies, support for flexible labour markets and welfare to work incentives have guaranteed faster growth in this country than across the EU as a whole, created 2.5 million additional jobs and reduced employment to less than 1 million’.
For orientation, we again find evidence of gendered differences. While men and women refer to both abstract and concrete orientations, we find men dedicate more of their discussion of issues or problems to abstract issues such as the economy, the environment, or the budget deficit. By contrast, women dedicate more of their discussion to issues or problems specific to concrete groups, such as individual schools or single mothers.
Finally, for adversarial language, we again find a gender difference. We find male MPs make greater use of adversarial language than female MPs. Commonly this was against other parties, for instance: ‘The Tories used the teachers as scapegoats for their disastrous social policies, which created poverty and destitution across the land’. However, adversarial statements were also made against individuals, such as an MP’s statement that certain speakers had revealed their ‘profound ignorance of the social security system’.
In the paper, we pay careful attention to measuring whether there are gender differences in how men and women engage in political discussion in the UK House of Commons. While we found overlaps in gendered communication style, our study presents compelling evidence of a number of differences: women make greater use of personal experience when evidencing arguments, provide a more concrete orientation to the discussion of issues and policies, and are less adversarial. These findings have important implications for how women’s styles might improve public engagement with politicians, offer a different focus to discussion, and improve democratic legitimacy.
First, our findings on how men and women argue, coupled with previous evidence about the argumentation styles people find persuasive, suggest that perhaps women are more compelling arguers than men. We show they use experience-based and anecdotal evidence three times as much as men; furthermore, they use fact-based arguments to an equivalent extent. Women therefore use a wider variety of evidence, that is convincing in many different ways. Experience-based argumentation resonates more with other legislators and the public. Fact-based argumentation is also good for developing evidence-based policy. Therefore, these findings have important implications for suggesting that perhaps female MPs are simply more convincing arguers.
Second, we find indications that men and women bring different focuses to policy discussion. Our findings show that women take a more concrete approach and orient the discussion to consider the effects of these policies on specific groups and individuals in society, such as single mothers, rural families, or people with disabilities. In contrast, we find that men consider the effects of policies in a more abstract manner, instead considering how more general issues will be impacted, such as the economy, the environment, or the state. This has important implications for how issues are presented in legislative debates. Women and men therefore bring different focuses to the discussion of policies; women contribute a more individual and personal focus and, in doing so, offer a different perspective to debate.
Third, women are less adversarial in their speechmaking. Therefore, women may offer a potentially more constructive approach to traditional perceptions of legislative speechmaking. Politicians engaging in political point-scoring and insults has been shown to contribute to public disengagement with politics. Therefore, an overall reduction in the aggressive nature of the Commons could have the effect of altering negative public perceptions of and engagement with parliament, which could even enhance participation in traditional politics and encourage a more positive relationship between the public and political elites.
This post is based on Lotte and Tone’s article, The Gendered Debate: Do Men and Women Communicate Differently in the House of Commons?, which appears in Politics & Gender.
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About the authors
Tone Langengen was a master’s degree student in the Department of Political Science, University College London when this research was conducted, and is now a UK civil servant. She tweets as @TLangengen.