Why endurance matters to assess the gender gap in political representation - Ragnhild Muriaas

Why endurance matters to assess the gender gap in political representation - Ragnhild Muriaas

  • Actualité Sciences PoActualité Sciences Po

Ragnhild Louise Muriaas is a professor of political science at the University of Bergen (Norway). Her research focus is the interaction between gender and politics, with a particular focus on representation, political careers and political financing. She is currently the project leader of a ERC project (consolidator) titled SUCCESS Gender-Gap in Political Endurance: a novel political inclusion theory (2021-2026). During the first phase of the project, the research team will develop a data set on political endurance, with a special focus on studying the share of women among parliamentary seniors. In the second phase of the project they’ll conduct field studies on different aspects of gender and political endurance, with a special focus on explaining the causes and consequences of gender imbalance among the senior members of parliament. The data will be collected in democracies such as France, Norway and the United States.   

During the fall of 2022 Ragnhild Muriaas was a visiting professor as part of LIEPP’s Discrminations and Category-Based Policies research group. She is now a visiting scholar at the CEE (Sciences Po)

The issue of representation in political careers is often mentioned in the public debate. Why did you choose to address it with a focus on endurance ? 

There’s a reason why we chose to study representation and why the numeric difference between men and women in Parliaments is important. There’s been a lot of research on that and also studies on quotas and how to get to parity, here in France for example. But let’s say that you have a Parliament where the gender balance is almost perfect, 45% of women and 55% of men, one might say that there would be gender balance. But if all the women there are newcomers, here for their first term, while the men have stayed on for three or four terms, do we then think of it as gender balance ?

Of course we assume that all representatives are able to have the same kind of impact and to represent their voters efficiently, but is that true ? What if the representatives with the most experience, who have had access to different positions are also those driving social and political change and having a stronger impact on policies ?

We’re shifting the focus to endurance to determine its impact and if, when endurance is taken into account, we can really talk of gender balance in Parliaments.

During your research, what results have you found so far that indicate the presence of gendered discrimination in Parliaments ? 

We had this interest in Parliamentarians that have stayed for a long time, so we looked at them as a group to look at the differences between men and women and the gender gap in how long they stayed. During our first study, focused on 9 western democracies, we found that in focusing on the endurance of Parliamentarians there is a gender gap across time and across countries. 

Figure 1 : Gender differences in endurance amongst Parliamentarians in 10 Western democracies from 1965 up until 2021

There has been a change in the past decades, of course. We looked for patterns of endurance and gender gap in endurance in data going back to 1945. If we concentrate on the gender gap amongst those who have stayed in Parliament for the longest time, we can see that it decreases over time in all 9 countries. Still, in most countries the gender gap among senior members remains considerable. There’s only a few countries like Spain or Norway where the gender gap has been closing over the last few terms. 

Could you give us more examples of patterns that we should be aware of as Parliaments are becoming more diverse ? 

We can take into account research that looks into the impact of discrimination before entering Parliament, and into the experience of newcomers who first enter Parliament.  Such research shows that newcomers often feel disadvantaged. It often takes time for them to get to know the system and to have an impact. 

There’s a study by Nirmal Puwar which shows that a lot of the representatives entering the British Parliament in the 1990s felt like space invaders. Even as a lot of Parliaments are becoming more diverse, we need to continue looking at the patterns of discrimination, not only regarding gender, but all discriminations. If people from different backgrounds are entering Parliament in greater numbers, does that also mean that they stay in politics and that they are equally represented among those who serve multiple terms ? 

Shuttertock Illustration : She was allowed to enter, but will she endure?

There are privileges and rewards that the most senior members of Parliament benefit from. Either formally, by accessing certain positions (ex : the position of Chair is normally awarded to a person with great experience) or through informal rewards and privileges (information, connection, ..). 

How could other scholars use the concept of political endurance to question discrimination in Parliaments ? 

We chose to focus on gender in this research : men, women and how they endure in Parliament. But it’s also possible to use the measurements used in this research to determine if other discriminated groups endure in Parliaments. 

It takes less time to be considered a senior member of Parliament in some countries than in others. In some Parliaments, you would have to stay four or five terms to be among those who have served for the longest time. In other Parliaments there is more volatility, so staying for fewer terms (two or three) would already mean that you are among those who’ve served the longest. If you chose to focus on the 25% of representatives who have served for the longest amount of time, that’s one relational measure that needs to be taken into account.

It is also possible to study a more static measure : looking at the gender gap within people who have served three terms or more. For each term they’ve served, what does the pattern look like ? 

These tools can be used to determine if Parliaments are discriminatory spaces for all kinds of minorities: people from a different class, people with different educational backgrounds... The idea is that there should eventually be an equilibrium in representation of all types of citizens in Parliaments. 

During the fall of 2022, you were a visiting scholar as part of the Discriminations and Category-Based Policies research group at LIEPP. How was your experience?

It’s been a great experience. It’s a really welcoming research environment and it’s nice to work among a group of diverse international scholars where we can discuss issues of discrimination from all sorts of points of view. During my stay I had the opportunity to present the first draft of a paper discussing the concept of political endurance and showing how it can be measured in Western democracies. (Seminar Parliamentary Stayers in Western Democracies: Mind the Gender-Gap in Political Endurance). At that point, it was interesting to get feedback that pointed us in different directions and to hypotheses that might not have yet been studied. For instance the question of seniority. There is a great discussion in Western democracies with political parties only allowing their representatives to serve two terms. It begs the question : is seniority a good thing ? So in that sense it was a very thought provoking seminar. There are also a lot of young scholars at LIEPP, which makes me happy because they might carry an interest in this. My hope is that in the future the issue of endurance is questioned :  what are patterns of endurance telling us, and most importantly; what are the consequences of gender gaps in political endurance ? 

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