The list of benefits from having more women in parliament is long and well-documented. Whether it’s increasing political engagement with the female electorate or negotiating more equitable trade policies, the health and legitimacy of democracy depends on having women in positions of power. Earlier understandings of women in politics argued that increasing the number of women in parliament would lead to substantive benefits in the form of greater representation for women in the electorate. The line of reasoning was that women have a shared set of interests and deeper understanding of the women they represent. Therefore, by creating an environment in which more women were ‘at the table’ throughout deliberations, women’s interests that might otherwise go overlooked by men may be reflected in political outcomes.
My current research takes the claim that women provide greater substantive representation to the women they represent a step further by asking whether women MPs provide greater representation to voters of all genders. Findings in the US and India have shown that voters consistently underestimate the qualifications of female candidates in politics. Consequently, the bar for success for women candidates in aggregate is higher than it is for male candidates. My research tests that proposition in the context of the UK by examining how MPs respond to the issues that are important to the electorate. Using a combination of hundreds of public opinion surveys that asked the British public ‘What is the most important issue facing the country?’, I mapped the level of importance attributed to top issues in the UK, which can be seen in Figure 1 below.
Around the time of the start of the pandemic in March, voters understandably grew concerned with health and the economy. These fears later were transferred to the issue of education as many parents had to accommodate school closings and uncertainty around lockdowns. Interestingly, issues like crime, immigration and defense became much less important amidst the myriad problems of the pandemic.
Public issue priorities in the United Kingdom, 2018-2022
To explore the relationship between the issue presented in Figure 1 above and MPs’ attention to those issues, I turned to MPs’ social media activity on Twitter. Nearly every MP has an active Twitter account and they regularly use Twitter to communicate with constituents and emphasise the issues and policies that are important to voters. Data collection for this step included around 1.8 million tweets (MPs tweet a lot!), but included each tweet sent from an MP account between 2018 and 2021. Using machine learning to identify tweets about each issue, attention was ultimately calculated as a proportion of the number of tweets MPs sent in a given two-week time period to match the survey dates. Performing this analysis on all the tweets sent by MPs for a four year period and for each issue yielded dynamic measures of MPs’ attention, displayed in Figure 2 below.
Parliamentarians’ issue attention in the UK, 2018-2022
As we can see from charting MPs’ attention, there are gendered differences in the issues that are important to MPs as well. Women in parliament give greater attention to crime, the environment, health and education, while men in parliament give greater attention to defense, tax, and the economy. We can also see that parliamentarians exhibited a similar increase as voters in attention to health and the economy around the time of the outbreak of COVID-19, while issues like crime and immigration appear to decrease in importance.
It would be near-impossible to take away from these figures alone whether men or women MPs were more responsiveness to shifts in voters’ priorities, so data were further analysed statistically. The results demonstrate that women in parliament are not only more responsive to shifts in the level of importance devoted to the issues in aggregate by voters, they are also more responsive to the issue priorities of male voters specifically as well (You can find the full statistical results and further details of the data collection and modelling strategies on my website).
Electing more women into politics has long been a goal of feminists and advocates of equality alike, yet the benefits women representatives provide have been understood solely in the context of other women. Although the findings presented here are limited to social media, they provide evidence that voters of all genders pay a price in the form of responsiveness to their policy priorities when they let gender shape their decisions at the ballot box. Whether posts on social media amount to legislative changes is a question for a future project, but we know that long before MPs can respond to the electorate through changes in public policy, they must first respond to and emphasise voters’ issue priorities. The findings presented here show that when it comes to emphasising the issues that are most important to voters, women do it better.
Zachary Dickson is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Glasgow and a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics. His research utilises computational methods and social data to examine legislative behaviour in liberal democracies. You can read more about his research at http://z-dickson.github.io/home/