Who’s Working in “Women’s Interests”?: Understanding Legislatures as Gendered Organizations

by Catherine Bolzendahl

A good chunk of work, my own included, suggests that electing more women to legislature matters for policy outcomes. Mostly, we’ve argued that it’s because women care more about issues seen as being in “women’s interests,” either because women have been socialized to care more about these issues, they face these issues more directly in their day-to-day lives, and/or that others (constituents/coworkers) expect women to care more. No doubt these processes are at work, but these explanations aren’t fully satisfying. They tend to focus on individuals, reify gender stereotypes, and don’t really help us make sense of other findings, especially in the U.S., that women legislators may have fairly little impact on policy outcomes.

Part of the problem, is that we’re ignoring how gender is constructed at the level of the legislature. Just as work on gendered organizations taught us to recognize that employees weren’t entering gender neutral workplaces, we have to see that legislators are not entering gender neutral legislatures. To better understand how and why these institutional forces matter when it comes to gender, I analyzed 40 years of data from 1969-2009 on committee organizations and rosters in Germany, Sweden, and the U.S. Based on what I found, I argue that legislatures, like organizations, often work to systematically privilege men and dominant forms of masculinity, marginalize women and the “feminine,” and contribute to gender segregation.

When I started examining the gender patterns in committee content, membership, leadership, and the organization of the committee system as a whole, certainly I found that some membership stereotypes held. Women were much more likely to be on committees dealing with family, children, social policy, culture and health – the typical “soft” issues seen as being in women’s interests. Men, due to their long-standing dominance of the legislature could rarely be seen as specializing, per se, but men were more likely to be heavily over-represented on the “hard” issue committees such as budgets, defense, or transportation. Yet, the comparison across time shed light on committees as gendered organizations in several important ways:

  • First, systems varied in content and organization, differentially shaping the opportunities and prestige of positions available for men and women legislators. For example, it’s notable that the U.S. has no social policy or “soft issue” committees, thus eliminating a typical specialization for women legislators. We could speculate that this may stymie meaningful policy progress in this area, and block a common route for women candidates into policy-making.
  • Second, access to power matters. Even in the most women-dominated committees of each nation, women rarely held leadership positions. In the U.S., women were practically absent from leadership and their marginal increases in composition were shunted mainly toward oversight and ethical committees. In fact, recent research has suggested that framing women as more ethical has been a strategy in women’s political marginalization.
  • Finally, organizational change was routine. Legislative institutions are often seen as shifting on a glacial pace, but in all nations, committees frequently started, ended, or reorganized. This had big implications for gender because not all nations defined social issues similarly. Sweden’s approach was gender-neutral and they have made bigger gains in integrating these committees. Further, as women legislators began an influx to Germany’s system, new committees were created that have absorbed much of this increase, but these committees – Culture, Tourism, and Human Rights – seem to have expanded the list of “soft” issues at the expense of incorporating more women into traditionally men-dominated committees.

Overall, committee systems are gendered organizations imbued with institutional-level constructions of gender difference, especially into “soft” vs. “hard” issues. Such constructions reify gendered assumptions about political issues themselves, by undervaluing the importance of people and social issues with regard to transportation and finance, or the importance of financial and infrastructural issues with regard to family and human rights. The issues become separate and unequal, and those committees dominated by women have been the most resistant to integration, suggesting they remain less desirable and prestigious. Gender imbalances in leadership may exacerbate this, to the extent that agenda setting and leadership remains associated with masculinity. Therefore, an answer to why women legislators might differentially impact policy on social issues is at least partially the similarities in the institutionalization of gender in legislatures.

On a more positive note, it’s clear that the gendering of the committee system changes over time, and operates well beyond individual-level mechanisms. Given the shifts I saw in this time period and comparative variation in systems, I believe it’s not unrealistic to expect that changes in favor of gender equality could be launched at the institutional level.

Catherine Bolzendahl is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine. Her article, “Opportunities and Expectations: The Gendered Organization of Legislative Committees in Germany, Sweden, and the United States,” is forthcoming in Gender & Society. To view the article press release, click here. To view the article on OnlineFirst, click here.

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