Gender stereotypes and the policy priorities of women in Congress

 Image source:  Politico
Image source:  Politico


Women who run for Congress are just as likely to win as men are (e.g., Burrell 1994; Carroll 1994; Fox 2006), yet women face considerable challenges related to their sex on the campaign trail. For instances, incumbent women seeking reelection are more likely to face challengers than incumbent men are, and the challengers they face are typically more qualified. Gender stereotypes also paint women as less able to handle important issues like defense and foreign affairs.

In the face of obstacles like these, how do women succeed at rates equal to those of men? In our new article, we argue that women in Congress succeed, in part, because they are more active legislators than their male counterparts.  We find that women craft large, diverse legislative portfolios that include district issues, women’s issues, and masculine issues. This allows female lawmakers to demonstrate competence in dealing with high salience topics like war and peace, while simultaneously serving as surrogates for women nationwide (a priority identified by Republican and Democratic women alike). This “balancing strategy” allows female lawmakers to highlight their legislative accomplishments on the campaign train and quell concerns stemming from gender stereotypes.

The paper analyzes a comprehensive database of all bills introduced in the U.S. House between 1963 and 2009. Using these data, we examine the number of bills members of Congress introduce, the diversity of lawmakers’ legislative agendas, and the propensity of legislators to introduce bills in 19 different topic areas that span the full range of issues considered by Congress.

We find that female MCs propose more legislation than men do and that the legislation they introduce is distributed across more policy topics. The figures below illustrate these findings. Figure 1 shows that in the earliest decades examined, women introduced roughly 8 more pieces of legislation per congressional session as compared to their male peers. This difference decreased over time as the total number of bills introduced in Congress decreased, but women serving in recent years have sponsored roughly two more pieces of legislation per session, as compared with men.

Figure 1: Predicted Number of Bills Sponsored by Women and Men, Over Time

Women in Congress are also less likely to craft specialized policy agendas than men are (as illustrated by Figure 2, where higher values indicate a concentration of attention on fewer issue areas). Instead, they distribute their attention across a range of topics that includes civil rights, health care, social welfare, and defense. Sponsoring more legislation, overall, allows women to attend closely to women’s issues without neglecting district interests or perennially important topics like defense and foreign affairs. But this means women are investing more time and resources in lawmaking than their male colleagues are—perhaps out of necessity.

Figure 2: Predicted Diversity of Legislative Agendas of Women and Men, Over Time

In a final analysis, we examine the degree to which the size of a legislator’s agenda impacts the emergence of challengers in primary elections. We find that women who are successful at deterring challengers from entering primary elections sponsor twice as many bills, on average, as do men who deter challengers. Figure 3 illustrates this relationship. Here, we estimate the probability that average female and male incumbent members of Congress will, respectively, not face any primary challengers. (These predictions are based on the statistical models presented in full in our paper.)  The probability that a female member of Congress will successfully deter primary challengers does not fall to a level that is similar to that of an average man sponsoring the average number of bills per session (22) until we assume she sponsors 48 bills per session (the series mean plus one standard deviation).

Figure 3: Predicted Probability of Deterring Primary Challengers, for an average woman who sponsors 48 bills and an average man who sponsors 22 bills.

Our findings speak to the gendered context of congressional campaigns. They show that women in Congress must do more than their male colleagues to arrive at similar electoral outcomes. The added effort and staff hours female MCs typically devote to crafting legislation, vis-`a-vis male members of Congress, only serves to put them on equal footing with men. It does not give them an advantage.

Mary Layton Atkinson (@QueenCityProf) is an assistant professor of political science at UNC Charlotte and Jason Harold Windett is an associate professor of political science at UNC Charlotte.