Expert Commentary

Barriers to sustaining gender diversity in politics

2010 study in American Journal of Political Science on barriers to further growth as female legislative ranks increase.

Sustaining gains by minorities in government becomes complicated as their ranks grow and the circumstances that allowed their unique candidacies to flourish evolve. Questions about how to ensure a more inclusive environment over the long term remain at issue. For example, a record 95 women were elected to serve in the 111th Congress — among 435 House and 100 Senate seats — but that number fell to 92 for the 112th Congress.

A 2010 study by the University of Pittsburgh published in the American Journal of Political Science, “Valuing Diversity in Political Organizations: Gender and Token Minorities in the U.S. House of Representatives,” measured the amount of political contributions by members of Congress to female members, who typically held less than 15% of House seats over the past decade, as their ranks increased. Political action committee funds controlled Congressional leaders are distributed on a discretionary basis to legislators. Using data from the 103rd to the 108th Congresses, the researchers use this allocation of money as an indication of how members are valued.

The study’s findings include:

  • When women legislators increased their numbers, contributions fell significantly from Democratic men to Democratic women colleagues and from Republican men to their women colleagues.
  • Women increased their contributions to men as the proportion of women in the party increased.
  • Women increased their valuation of other women more modestly as the proportion of women in the party increased, and this increase was not enough to offset the decrease in contributions from their majority-men colleagues.

The researchers conclude that these dynamics in Congress operate to create an “implicit ‘glass ceiling’” for female members. The study’s authors also state that the findings “have strong implications for minority representation in general, because they indicate that underrepresented minorities in democratic institutions receive benefits from their token minority status, but those benefits ebb once the group reaches a size large enough to provide benefits for each other.”

Tags: diversity

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