Do Electoral Laws Affect Women’s Representation? Perhaps Not as Much as We Thought

With record numbers of women elected to the US Congress in last month’s elections, some in the media have brought out the “year of the woman” moniker to describe this election.  Of course, “record number” means approximately 100 women across the House and Senate, or, put another way, still less than 20% of Congress.  With women making up slightly more than 50% of the US population, there is obviously still a ways to go here.

Political scientists have been interested in the question of what explains variation in the number of women found in national legislatures, and one common explanation has been that electoral systems featuring proportional representation tends to result in more female legislators. Forthcoming research in the journal Comparative Political Studies  by political scientists Andrew Roberts, Jason Seawright, and Jennifer Cyr calls this result into question.  Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Numerous studies have found that proportional electoral rules significantly increase women’s representation in national parliaments relative to majoritarian and mixed rules. These studies, however, suffer from serious methodological problems including the endogeneity of electoral laws, poor measures of cultural variables, and neglect of time trends. This article attempts to produce more accurate estimates of the effect of electoral rules on women’s representation by using within-country comparisons of electoral rule changes and bicameral systems as well as matching methods. The main finding is that the effect of electoral laws is not as strong as in previous studies and varies across cases. The policy implication is that changes in electoral laws may not provide a quick and consistent fix to the problem of low women’s representation.

The full paper is available here (gated).

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.