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.

Role Models, Spillovers, and the Supply Side of Women's Political Representation

This project aims to collect comprehensive data on women's representation in the municipalities of 17 Swiss cantons, including the complete list of female candidates and their electoral performance, since the introduction of women's suffrage at the municipal level. The project will use these data to study the influence of role models -- successful female politicians -- in fostering women's political representation by encouraging more women to run for office.

This project studies the supply side of women’s representation by looking at how spillovers affect the motivation of women to run for office. One of the main reasons for the enduring gender gap in politics is that women continue to be less likely than men to run for office, although their election chances tend to be the same. Previous research has found that, in the canton of Zurich, the availability of role models, defined defined as successful female politicians with whom women can identify, was associated with higher numbers of female candidates, but only for about four elections. However, the specific mechanisms by which the effects of role models decrease over time remain unclear and need further investigation. This project leverages cross-cantonal comparisons to (a) examine variations in the the duration of the effects of role models, (b) study how the influence of role models is conditioned by electoral rules, (c) investigate the unintended consequences of the consolidation of women’s representation, and (d) provide more reliable causal estimates. These steps will permit to draw clearer conclusions on the current and future potential of role models for improving women’s representation.

Despite significant progress in the past decades, women remain underrepresented in politics. Instead of a virtuous circle in which increased women's representation would create favorable conditions for even better gender equality, the share of women in elected offices has stagnated well under 30%. To overcome this state of affairs, it is essential that we better understand how the example of successful female politicians can help to bring more women into electoral politics.

Measuring Policy Diffusion with Automated Content Analysis: The case of Smoking Bans in Switzerland and the United States

Policy diffusion means that policies spread across countries, states, cantons, etc. For example, many cantons in Switzerland adopted smoking bans after an overwhelming majority supported them in a referendum in Ticino. Similarly, smoking bans spread quickly among U.S. states after their successful introduction in California. Many studies have documented the diffusion of policies, but few could explain it precisely.

Our main goal is to improve the understanding of policy diffusion by applying new statistical methods allowing to analyze very large quantities of text. Concretely, we want to find out whether and how the perception of smoking bans in one canton (respectively, U.S. state) is shaped by their adoption in other cantons (respectively, other U.S. states). An hypothesis is that implementation problems, or possible negative consequences for restaurants, are perceived differently when other cantons or states have had positive experiences with smoking bans. This procedure could be applied in many other areas and, therefore, it could make a significant impact on diffusion research. Our study will generate new, important knowledge on how smoking bans have spread, as well as on policy diffusion in general. Diffusion processes can speed up, or slow down, the nation-wide adoption of policies. Therefore, understanding policy diffusion is important for many different political actors.

Democratic diffusion and the "Arab Spring"

The wave of protests and democratic reforms (some relatively successful, others failed) that took place across Middle Eastern and Northern African (MENA) countries in 2011 has been known as the "Arab Spring." Many commentators have used the metaphor of a domino to highlight the idea that events in one country were influenced by events in other countries. This interpretation is very plausible and is supported by some academic research, but the evidence is not very strong. Our main goal is to gain more precise insights into this question by looking at how protests and reforms in a given country were perceived in other countries. Specifically, we consider five aspects that shape how events are perceived: opposing groups in a violent context, individual tragedies or achievements, responsibility for causing the protests, religious or moral implications, and economic consequences for individuals, groups, countries, or the whole region. We examine the prevalence of these frames and, especially, how they change over time and as a response to events in other countries. We do this by studying a very large number of newspaper articles with statistical text analysis techniques. The findings will have important practical implications for the assessment of democratization prospects in the MENA region and, more generally, for gaining a better understanding of the role of interdependence and spillovers in international affairs.