The Temporary Importance of Role Models for Women's Political Representation

"Women are a minority in every state legislature in America" was the title of a recent post on Vox.com. In this case, the US is no exception: women are politically underrepresented almost everywhere in the world. Why is that the case? There are many explanations, but one of the main obstacles to closing the gender gap in politics is the lack of female candidates. The electoral system and other political institutions often create structural biases against women from the demand side, but the supply side matters as well. Women tend to be less keen to run for office than men, partly because they may doubt their qualifications and partly because they may feel less comfortable with the electoral process itself. What can be done to counter this state of affairs? Gender quotas have been a popular and successful tool for bringing more women into elected office. Many proponents believe that quotas set in motion a number of spillovers that make them unnecessary in the long term. For instance, quotas are believed to make voters more comfortable with female politicians and, importantly, to bring more women into active electoral politics by creating role models for prospective female candidates. Such spillovers are thought to follow not only from gender quotas but from the presence of women in elected office more in general – that is, from their descriptive representation.

My article argues that the spillovers of women's representation operate not only within a given country, state, or municipality, but also across them. A woman elected in a given legislature can be a role model for other women not only in the same legislature but also elsewhere. As a result, female candidates could diffuse across jurisdictions. The only study that has previously considered this argument could not find evidence supporting it, but it considered only the effects of a recent election. By contrast, my study leverages the late introduction of women's suffrage in Switzerland in 1971 to track the influence of role models since the very first election in which women could vote and be elected. I find significant spillovers for a few years after the introduction of women's suffrage. At first, if a woman was elected in a municipality, in the next election an additional woman decided to run for office in 10% of nearby municipalities. This spillover persists for a few elections but then fades away: the importance of role models appears to be temporary.

There are two explanations for this pattern. First, it turns out that spillovers matter only when there is no female incumbent running for re-election. As women's representation improves over time, there are fewer municipalities where that is the case. Second, qualitative evidence suggests that when the share of women among local executives consolidated to about 20 to 25 percent, gender equality became taken for granted by party leaders and potential female candidates alike.

These findings have several practical implications:

1) Interventions aiming to improve women's representation should take their spillovers into account. For instance, if gender quotas are introduced only in some jurisdictions within a country, their (geographic) distribution should be designed to maximize the "diffusion multiplier."

2) The timing of interventions is crucial because spillovers change over time and tend to disappear when a given level of representation is considered appropriate, even though it is far from equal. This can be a perverse consequence of successful interventions: progress in representation may be taken for granted too quickly.

3) These arguments could be relevant for other underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities and LGBT people.

Despite its specificities, the Swiss case is quite representative of broad cross-national patterns. The lesson from my study is that the example of successful female politicians can motivate other women to pursue a political career, but only until women's representation is considered adequate. Therefore, whether role models will be a significant factor in taking the political representation of women to the next level will depend on how current levels of representation are perceived both by political actors and by the public at large – and on the success of women's groups in shaping these views.