Women Want an Answer! Field Experiments on Elected Officials and Gender Bias
Female elected officials are particularly responsive to female constituents, suggesting a greater number of women in office would lead to higher quality representation for women.
Gender bias affects many aspects of politics. Studies have shown that 1) political parties are more responsive to the preferences of men, 2) party leaders are more likely to recruit male candidates, and 3) female candidates are penalized by voter bias.
Studies have found evidence of racial bias in elected officials’ responses to their constituents, with elected officials being less likely to respond to Black, rather than white, constituents. Findings did show, however, that black elected officials were more likely to respond to Black constituents. Unfortunately, no research had been conducted on whether gender similarly affects the elected officials’ responses. This study examines the extent to which elected officials, whether male or female, subconsciously discriminate against women or men in responding to outreach from their constituencies. At a time when women constitute less than half of members of parliament in all but four countries worldwide, understanding the role of elected officials' gender and gender bias in delivering government services stands to shape the conversation around the importance of political representation and the impact of women in leadership positions.
To build that understanding, this study examined whether elected officials discriminate against men or women when responding to inquiries from constituents, including whether they are more likely to respond to constituents of their same gender. The authors sent emails with the email senders names randomized to appear either male or female. They then tracked whether elected officials responded within two months and compared, first, the rates of response to male and female constituents and, second, the rates of response from male and female elected officials.
Elected officials were more responsive to women than to men, with female elected officials from Europe particularly responsive to female constituents.
- Overall, elected officials were more responsive to women than to men.
- Across the 11 counties studied, the response rate was 26.2% for women and 23.2% for men. In other words, legislators were 3% points more likely to respond to women than to men.
- Elected officials were more responsive to women than to men in most, but not all, countries.
- The response rate was higher for women than men in all of the European countries studied, while, in the Latin American countries studied, women received more replies only in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico. In European countries, legislators were 4.3% points more likely to respond to women than to men.
- Overall, female elected officials were more responsive to women than male elected officials.
- Across the 11 countries studied, 30.3% of female elected officials replied to women and only 25.8% replied to men, while 24.5% of male elected officials replied to women and only 22% replied to men.
- Female elected officials were more responsive to women than to men in Europe, but not in Latin America.
- In Europe, female elected officials were 8.4% points more likely to respond to women than to men. In Latin America, there was not a significant difference between the two response rates.
These findings suggest that a greater number of women in office would lead to a higher quality of representation for women constituents. They indicate that increasing the number of female elected officials is important, not only because it improves public policy outcomes for women, as earlier studies have shown, but also because such representation leads to higher responsiveness to women.
This comparative audit experiment was carried out with members of parliament in 11 countries throughout Europe and Latin America (France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay). The authors selected countries with a range of electoral systems, as well as varying proportions of female members of parliament, to account for any potential effects of electoral systems on elected officials' motivations to reply to constituents.
In each country, the authors compiled a list of the members of parliament and their email addresses. They emailed all sitting members of parliament, a total of 3,685, on central days of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), posing as a citizen requesting assistance accessing government services. In each country, the citizen alias' first name was randomized to appear male or female, with authors selecting common names whose gender would be easily identifiable, and his or her last name was selected from gender-neutral popular last names. The emails contained brief requests on issues relevant to each region, with emails in Europe asking about unemployment benefits and emails in Latin America asking about healthcare services.
Afterwards, the researchers recorded the replies received with two months of the date the email was sent. They counted only messages that contained information addressing the question posed by the citizen alias and dismissed those that did not provide any information as non-replies.