It may seem obvious that social values based in negative assessments of women’s capabilities and fixed ideas about gender roles create personal and professional obstacles for women in politics. But, I found myself wondering: exactly how much do sexist social attitudes impact women’s political representation? To answer this, I did an econometric analysis that measured the relationship between social values concerning women and their political participation in 33 different countries, where “political participation” is defined as the percentage of parliamentary seats (seats in single or lower chamber) that are held by women. My study found that even a very small increase in negative social values about women and their role in society can have a powerful impact on the number of women in politics globally.
I selected four questions from the World Values Survey’s 2005-2008 questionnaire that I felt were direct measures of people’s thoughts and feelings about women’s role in society and politics:
Do you agree, disagree, or have no opinion on the following statements:
1. Men make better political leaders than women.
2. Men make better business executives than women.
3. When jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job than women.
4. University is more important for boys than girls.
A fifth question was formatted slightly differently:
5. Rate your approval of abortion on a scale of one to ten, where one is “never justified” and ten is “always justified.”
My data included the percentage of respondents who agreed with or had no opinion on the first four statements and the percentage of respondents who rated their approval of the fifth at a 5 or above. As a basis of comparison I also included the number of years since women had gained suffrage in the country, the country’s fertility rate, and the country’s GDP per capita as variables.
According to my results, as the percentage of people who agree with the first 4 statements increases by 1, the percentage of parliamentary seats held by women decreases by 0.31%, 0.37% 0.29%, and 0.46% respectively. That doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but let’s look closer at what that really means: for every 1% increase in people who think that men are more capable than women in leadership roles and are more entitled to jobs and an education than women, we see a decrease in parliamentary seats held by women of 3258, 3888, 3047, and 4834 respectively over the 33 countries. For only a 1% increase, only considering the impact of each of those opinions individually. We can rephrase this in even more concrete terms: 24.7% of U.S. respondents agreed that men make better political leaders than women. Assuming the effect is uniform across all countries (which it’s probably not, but we’ll get to that), that, by these findings, means that there was a decrease of about 7.66% in the percentage of parliamentary seats held by women in the year that the U.S, took the World Values Survey. That equates to 57 seats in the House of Representatives.
For every 1% increase in the number of people who rated their approval of abortion at a 5 or higher, we see a 0.26% increase in parliamentary seats held by women. Again, it doesn’t seem like much as a percentage, but let’s look at the US again: 56.9% of people rated their approval of abortion at a 5 or higher on the survey, which means that 14.8% more of the parliamentary seats were held by women in the year that the U.S. took the survey. That’s about 29 seats in the House of Representatives.
These findings support what many Lady Economist readers argue time and time again: social attitudes about women matter for gender equity in politics. Here’s the kind of unusual part though: not only does it look like cultural norms play a significant role in women’s political representation, but it also looks like they play a bigger role than some political and economic factors. The number of years since women had gained suffrage and the country’s fertility rate both turned out to be statistically insignificant; the country’s GDP was significant, but only caused an increase of 0.000285% in parliamentary seats held by women—so not much. Essentially, then, no matter how long women have had suffrage, how many children they have, or, to a certain extent, the development of their country, if the general population considers them incapable of holding a leadership position and undeserving of an education comparable to that of their male peers their political representation will still suffer.
It’s worth talking about this in terms of individual countries, as well. Testing each country’s individual effect showed that few were having a significant impact on their own (with the notable exception of Sweden, which turned out to be highly significant), but to double-check I divided them into two groups, one with countries with lower GDPs and one with countries with higher GDPs, and ran the regressions again. Fascinatingly, it seems that some of these variables have markedly larger effects in one group or another. It would take a little too long to list them all here (I ran a TON of regressions, you guys) but highlights include the fact that approval of abortion has a large part in women’s political representation in countries with higher GDPs, and doesn’t seem to have an impact at all in countries with lower GDPs. The importance of university, too, was particularly significant in countries with higher GDPs. Conversely, negative opinions on women as business executives had a much stronger relationship with women’s political representation in countries with lower GDPs.
All in all, these results demonstrate a remarkable correlation between social values about women and women’s political representation. Of course, there’s much to improve and many more ways to investigate the question, but I hope that this and findings like it can be the start of a discussion and the beginning of recognizing that limiting assessments of women aren’t just difficult to deal with, but that they pose a real problem for equity and stall progress.