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date: 21 February 2024

Quantitative Methods and Feminist Political Sciencefree

Quantitative Methods and Feminist Political Sciencefree

  • Katelyn E. StaufferKatelyn E. StaufferDepartment of Political Science, University of South Carolina
  •  and Diana Z. O'BrienDiana Z. O'BrienDepartment of Political Science, Texas A&M University


Quantitative methods are among the most useful, but also historically contentious, tools in feminist research. Despite the controversy that sometimes surrounds these methods, feminist scholars in political science have often drawn on them to examine questions related to gender and politics. Researchers have used quantitative methods to explore gender in political behavior, institutions, and policy, as well as gender bias in the discipline. Just as quantitative methods have aided the advancement of feminist political science, a feminist perspective likewise has implications for data production, measurement, and analysis. Yet, the continued underrepresentation of women in the methods community needs to be addressed, and greater dialogue between feminist researchers and quantitative methodologists is required.


  • Post Modern/Critical Politics
  • Quantitative Political Methodology


Of the myriad of methods that can be deployed by feminist researchers, quantitative approaches are among both the most useful and also the most historically contentious. Whereas some feminist scholars have embraced quantitative methods, others have questioned their underlying assumptions and the appropriateness of their application to feminist studies. These critiques largely center on the association of quantitative methods with positivism and other epistemological concerns. Despite these debates, quantitative methods have become a central component of political science research generally and have been integrated into feminist political science more specifically.

Though applied to the study of politics as early as 1919 (see Ogburn & Goltra), quantitative techniques became integral to the discipline following the behavioral revolution of the 1960s, when political scientists became increasingly interested in understanding the underpinnings of individual political behavior (King, 1990). This disciplinary turn necessarily required the application of quantitative techniques, with scholars applying survey and experimental approaches to the study of politics. This shift toward political behavior also marked the first time that women were seriously incorporated into political analyses (Shanley & Schuck, 1974). Whereas the discipline’s previous focus on political institutions had largely obscured gender, the study of behavior shed light on women as political actors.

This increased attention to women in politics can be attributed not simply to the behavioral revolution, but also to the efforts of feminist researchers. Broadly speaking, feminist scholarship is the process of “documenting women’s lives, experiences, and concerns, illuminating gender-based stereotypes and biases” (Brooks & Hesse-Biber, 2007, p. 4). Within political science, feminists have sought to incorporate women’s experiences into the study of politics, elucidate the gendered nature of political institutions, and document gender biases within the discipline.

The rise of quantitative methods, coupled with increased attention to women as political actors and feminist political science, together raise interesting questions about the interplay between these two lines of study. The diversity of perspectives in the feminist research tradition means there is no consensus among feminist scholars on what, if any, role quantitative methods should play in the research process. Likewise, the male dominance of the political methodology community means that it has not been forced to reckon with feminist political science. Researchers must now ask what role quantitative analysis should play in the study of feminist political science (and vice versa).

We contend that quantitative methods can and should be used in feminist research agendas, and that scholars using these methods have greatly advanced the feminist understanding of politics. Likewise, a feminist perspective can and should influence how quantitative researchers approach topics such as data production, measurement, and statistical analysis. Rather than being at odds with one another, we view feminism and quantitative methods as complementary when used appropriately.

In the sections that follow we first provide an overview of our key concepts. We next discuss the interplay between a feminist methodology and quantitative methods, offering a brief overview of the emergence of feminist research in political science. We then examine how feminist researchers have successfully used quantitative methods to offer new insights into American political development, political behavior, and political institutions, as well as to shed light on gender biases within political science. We note that just as quantitative methods have been an important tool in feminist political science, a feminist perspective likewise has implications for data production, measurement, and analysis. We conclude by discussing the gaps that remain between the two research traditions and calling for feminist methodology and quantitative analysis to be in even greater dialogue with one another.

Major Concepts

We begin by identifying and defining the major ideas underpinning these debates. First, we discuss epistemology, methodology, and methods. We then turn to feminist scholarship and quantitative methods broadly defined. Having clarified our concepts, in the subsequent sections we offer a more in-depth discussion of how feminist scholars have applied quantitative methods to the study of political science.

Epistemology, Methodology, and Methods

Epistemology refers to a theory of knowledge held by researchers (Ackerly & True, 2010; Harding, 1987). Epistemology serves as a guide for determining what constitutes fact, how evidence is defined and evaluated, and how conclusions are drawn from the research process. From a feminist perspective, knowledge production is an important topic that warrants careful evaluation and critique (Ackerly & True, 2010, p. 27). Ultimately, the epistemology of the researcher plays a significant role in how she approaches research and the methods she employs.

While methodology and method are often used interchangeably, these terms are distinct and their differences have important implications for understanding the role played by quantitative methods in feminist political science. We adopt the definitions presented by Sandra Harding (1987). Harding defines methodology as a “theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed” (pp. 2–3). A feminist methodology thus uses feminist principles as the guiding force in approaching the research process, including posing questions, collecting data, and carrying out the project. Methodology does not demand a particular mode of analysis but rather guides how the analysis will be conducted.

Methods, in contrast, are the techniques employed to gather, produce, and analyze data. Here, researchers have many options at their disposal, including ethnography, interviews, case studies, experimentation, and statistical analysis. While a feminist methodology no doubt can (and should) guide the selection of a method, it does not demand a particular method. Indeed, there is no single “correct” feminist method, but rather a variety of valid approaches (Reinharz & Davidman, 1992; Brooks & Hesse-Biber, 2007; DeVault, 1996; Randall, 2010; Ackerly & True, 2010). It is the motivation and application of the method that make a work feminist, rather than the method itself. Research using statistical analyses or experimentation can be just as feminist as ethnographic work, as long as the researcher is guided by a feminist methodology when selecting and implementing these tools. Indeed, the diversity of methods used by researchers has been central to the success of feminist scholarship.

Feminist Scholarship

Defining feminism within the context of academic research is no small feat, and there are a number of distinct viewpoints across the social sciences alone. Indeed, it is perhaps more fitting to view feminism as a diverse collection of viewpoints rather than a single perspective. Some suggest that feminist scholarship is work that is oriented toward the improvement of the status of women and is undertaken by scholars who identify themselves as feminists (Eichler, 1997). Others argue that the researcher need not view herself as a feminist for her work to be classified as such, as long as her approach adheres to a set of common goals pursued by most feminist researchers (Ackerly & True, 2010). At its core, feminist research shares the common goal of challenging entrenched male power (Randall, 2010).

As an approach for conducting research, feminism is best situated as a methodology rather than method (Harding, 1987; Cook & Fonow, 1986). Indeed, most scholars writing on the topic of feminist methodology would likely agree that there is no distinct feminist method, as we have defined the term in this essay (Reinharz & Davidman, 1992; Brooks & Hesse-Biber, 2007; DeVault, 1996; Randall, 2010; Ackerly & True, 2010). Stanley and Wise (1990) suggest that many feminist scholars rebel against the idea of defining a feminist method, arguing that attempts to do so detract from the larger goals of feminism as a methodology. Rather, it is more appropriate to view feminism within the social sciences generally, and political science more specifically, as a methodological approach.

Feminist researchers share a sense of commitment to a set of common goals and seek to carry out their research based on feminist principles. In doing so, they are able to adapt and apply a diverse set of methods, including quantitative approaches. In their work Doing Feminist Research, Ackerly and True (2010) argue that a feminist methodology provides a “critical perspective on social and political life that draws our attention to the way in which social, political and economic norms, practices, and structures create injustices that are experienced differently or uniquely by certain groups of women” (p. 1). Thus, feminist research is essentially interested in understanding and interrogating social and political structures that systematically disadvantage women, and the power dynamics that underpin these structures.

A feminist perspective further demands that researchers consider how various components of the research process are themselves gendered. Decisions about what to research, what evidence to consider, how to collect and evaluate evidence, and even who to work with can all have ramifications for the research process. A feminist perspective requires the researcher consider biases that may be present at various stages of the process, and how these biases may shape the conclusions drawn from the work.

Quantitative Methods

In broad terms, quantitative research can be defined as “explaining phenomena by collecting numerical data that are analyzed using mathematically based methods (particularly statistics)” (Aliaga & Gunderson, 2002). They do so by “abstract[ing] from particular instances to seek general description to test causal hypotheses” (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994). In this framework, researchers use data collected from a myriad of sources—including polls, surveys, roll call vote data, and more—to both describe phenomena of interest and test for patterns and associations between one factor (an independent or explanatory variable) and another (a dependent or outcome variable).

We adopt a broad definition of quantitative methods, defining any project that relies on statistical testing of numerical data as quantitative. This includes analyses of both experimental and observational data and allows for a host of statistical methods, from the most basic difference-in-means tests through more advanced techniques. For our purpose, the most important features to highlight are the diversity among quantitative methods, and the fact that these methods are used to create simplified representations of political systems, institutions, and behavior in order to allow for clearer inferences.

Quantitative Methods and Feminist Research

Of the many methods that can be deployed by feminist researchers, quantitative approaches are both among the most useful and also the most historically contentious. While some feminist researchers have embraced quantitative methods, others have questioned their underlying assumptions, and thus their utility for feminist research. In this latter camp, some even argue that quantitative methods are necessarily non-feminist in nature. Much of this tension is rooted in concerns over epistemology.

Quantitative methods have been associated with a positivist research tradition. Positivism represents a distinct epistemological approach to knowledge and the research process. From a positivist perspective, knowledge is an objective truth, one that can be discovered and discerned through analysis (Brooks & Hesse-Biber, 2007; Ramazanoglu & Holland, 2002). The positivist tradition places a premium on objectivity, with research ideally devoid of the values and biases of the researcher. In this sense, many view quantitative methods as purporting to be “value free.”

Some feminists have challenged the positivist assertion that there is a knowable truth that can be assessed through empirical evidence. They argue that the “statistics as hard facts” mentality is fundamentally flawed (see Brooks & Hesse-Biber, 2007). Feminists note that no method can truly be value-free; rather, each piece of research (and the implementation of each method) is shaped by the biases and perspective of the individual carrying out the research. Indeed, a cornerstone of feminism as methodology is the understanding that the research process itself is shaped by gendered norms and practices (Ackerly & True, 2010). From the perspective of some feminist scholars, quantitative methods (and positivism more generally) adhere to a more masculine set of research approaches and values.

Yet, critiques of positivism have not been universal among feminist researchers. In fact, some argue that feminists should not only embrace objectivity in research but should push to further strengthen it (Harding, 1987, 1998). Harding and other feminist empiricists posit that the research process is riddled with male biases that obscure women and their experiences. Feminist scholars should thus push for even stricter standards of objectivity to remove these biases from the research process. This will result in a more accurate picture of the social and political world. Being aware of biases in the research process, and correcting for these biases, is central to ascertaining this truth. In advocating for “strong objectivity,” feminists in this tradition contend that they will be able to gather data that will be more representative of women’s experiences.

Still other feminist scholars rebel against the notion that the use of quantitative methods means that a researcher necessarily subscribes to the assumptions and underpinnings of a positivist epistemology. While quantitative methods are most commonly associated with positivism, feminists from a wide range of epistemological approaches have applied these methods. Indeed, many feminists employ quantitative methods while rejecting the idea of an accessible universal “truth.” This framework makes use of quantitative tools while accepting that scientific inquiry can never truly be objective and impartial (and indeed perhaps should not be).

Within political science, feminist research addresses issues of authority, fairness, justice, and power and seeks to include gender in research paradigms where it has previously been ignored. Feminist researchers ask and answer questions related to these issues using a variety of methods and methodological approaches. Some scholars reject positivism generally, opting for interpretivist approaches. Others—both positivists and interpretivists—prefer qualitative techniques to quantitative methods. Indeed, within political science, female scholars across subfields are less likely to use quantitative tools (Breuning & Sanders, 2007; Teele & Thelen, 2017). Yet, large contingents of feminist scholars in political science are not only open to quantitative methods but have fully embraced these approaches.

Feminism in Political Science

Quantitative political science was developed to answer questions raised by the political world. Feminist political science likewise emerged in response to the contemporary women’s movement (Carroll & Zerilli, 1993). Feminists highlight the inequalities experienced by women in society, and the political consequences of these inequities. Feminism in academia challenges gender prejudice by calling attention to the underrepresentation of women within the academy and the exclusion of women from dominant research paradigms. That is, feminist scholars highlight both the absence of women as researchers and the absence of research relating to women’s experiences. In the context of political science, this means discussing the causes and consequences of men’s overrepresentation in the discipline and addressing potential problems in how the discipline treats (or fails to treat) gender in its research paradigms.

The integration of feminist research practices into political science is in large part due to women’s increased presence in the discipline. From the early 1970s onward, more women began entering the academy broadly, and political science specifically (Randall, 2010). This growth in women’s numbers—coupled with the creation of the Women’s Caucus for Political Science in 19691 (Sapiro, 1998)—created an environment ripe for the incorporation of feminist ideas and research practices into the discipline. Indeed in the years since the Women’s Caucus was founded, the American Political Science Association (APSA) Women and Politics Research Section was created, and the number of articles and dissertations related to gender and politics has steadily increased (Carroll & Zerilli, 1993).

Scholars interested in the development of feminist political science discuss the process as having occurred in phases (Randall, 2010; Carroll & Zerilli, 1993; Lovenduski, 1998). Though useful for conceptual clarity, these phases often overlap with one another chronologically (Randall, 2010). The first stage was largely categorized by critiques of the discipline for its historic exclusion of women (see Bourque & Grossholtz, 1974 and Iglitzin, 1974 for notable examples). As Carroll and Zerilli (1993) note, political science traditionally characterized women as apolitical and treated them as invisible in politics. In their survey of research on political behavior, Bourque and Grossholtz (1974) note that a considerable number of studies made no reference to women at all. Those that did were often plagued by problematic assumptions that marginalized women as political actors. This work, for example, equated women with their roles as wives and mothers, treated masculine characteristics as the political norm, and assumed men’s inherent dominance in the political system (see Corder & Wolbrecht, 2016 for a more in-depth discussion of early treatments of gender). The primary contribution of this early work was not necessarily creating alternatives to the discipline’s practices, but rather identifying the shortcomings in women’s treatment in the political science literature (Bourque & Grossholtz, 1974). Defining this problem proved a vital first step and paved the way for feminist researchers to push the discipline toward the study of women and politics.

Having identified the problem of women’s exclusion, the second strand of feminist research began to more fully incorporate women into the study of politics. Carroll and Zerilli (1993) point to early work by Kirkpatrick (1974, 1976) and Diamond (1977) at the elite level as particularly important for the inclusion of women in research on elite level politics, and for helping to dispel the myth that women were inherently apolitical. As more researchers examined women’s presence in elected office in more systematic ways, questions about the causes and consequences of women’s underrepresentation were more readily explored (Randall, 2010). Rather than relying on the stereotype that politics was an inherently masculine domain, this research focused on gender socialization and institutional characteristics (Diamond, 1977; Kirkpatrick, 1974; Jennings & Farah, 1981). Studies of behavior similarly began incorporating women into political analyses, including examining women’s interest (and participation) in politics (Baxter & Lansing, 1983; Sapiro, 1983; Welch, 1977; Rapoport, 1982). This research tradition is sometimes referred to as an “add women and stir” approach (Lovenduski, 1998; Randall, 2010; Beckwith, 2005). Yet, this category of research was/is useful because as Carroll and Zerilli (1993) note, incorporating women into existing frameworks, “pointed to the possible limitations and inadequacies of those frameworks” and often helped shed light on where “important adjustments were necessary” because “women did not always fit simply and neatly into the existing picture” (p. 60).

Randall (2010) classifies the third stage of feminist research as characterized by researchers who:

Raise more fundamental questions about their discipline: about limitations of the characteristic methodologies employed in political science, about the way that politics is conceptualized, and about the “gendered” character of political institutions and processes. (p. 119)

Feminists in this tradition have called into question the discipline’s understanding of what constitutes politics, arguing that the division between private and public spheres did not represent women’s view of politics (Carroll, 1989). This work, for example, explored women’s engagement in community-level institutions, voluntary associations, and neighborhood organizing (see Beckwith, 2005). Research in this vein has also asked questions about how institutions and political processes are themselves gendered. This research moves gender from an individual characteristic to an analytic tool used to study policy and institutions (Acker, 1992; Franceschet, 2011; Kathlene, 1994; Hawkesworth, 2003).

Feminist Political Science and Quantitative Methods

Feminist political science examines how gender and gendered experiences shape (and are shaped by) politics. As a methodology, feminism both reveals new research questions and also influences the methods selected to address these topics. Importantly, feminist research draws on a wide variety of approaches, including quantitative methods. In fact, it encourages using the method that is best suited for answering the research question, rather than selecting research problems based on their fit with popular disciplinary methods. By advocating for problem-driven—rather than methods-driven—scholarship, feminist methodology arguably opens up a broader set of options to researchers.

While in some academic disciplines quantitative methods and feminist approaches are viewed as being at odds with one another, statistical techniques have long been used for studying women’s political lives. In fact, the research project that first introduced quantitative methods to political science addressed a women-and-politics question. Published in the year prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Ogburn and Goltra (1919) used quantitative methods to explore whether women held different policy preferences than men, and whether these different preferences would have electoral consequences once women were granted suffrage nationwide. The authors sought to answer this question using data from an election in Portland, Oregon in which women were allowed to vote. Of course, to modern feminist and quantitatively oriented scholars, Ogburn and Goltra’s analysis and treatment of gender is rudimentary at best. Today’s researchers would recognize a number of limitations (both empirical and theoretical) in their work. Yet, it is important to note that the first foray of political science into the world of quantitative methods focused on women as an analytic group/category.

Ogburn and Goltra (1919) provide an early example linking quantitative research and the study of gender and politics. In subsequent decades, the use of quantitative methods by political scientists increased steadily (King, 1990). The study of gender and politics, in contrast, continued to be marginalized. As the discipline became more oriented toward the study of political behavior, women in politics increasingly became a subject of inquiry (Shanley & Schuck, 1974; Beckwith, 2005). As feminist scholars shifted toward integrating the study of gender into political science, they generally conformed to the methodological norms and practices of the discipline (Beckwith, 2005). This necessarily meant the incorporation of quantitative methods.

Yet, beyond simply employing quantitative methods in their research, feminist scholars have been quick to adapt to, and contribute to, cutting edge trends in quantitative methods including causal inference and experimental studies. Stauffer and O’Brien (2018) note that scholars publishing in Politics & Gender (the official journal of the APSA Women and Politics Section) employ a wide array of quantitative methods, including both observational and experimental work. Indeed nearly 60% of papers published in P&G since its founding have incorporated some form of quantitative analysis, with 13% of quantitative articles including an experimental component. Applying a feminist lens to experimental design, political scientists have examined topics related to intersectionality (Cassese, Barnes, & Branton, 2015; Philpot & Walton, 2007), the gendered nature of elections (Barnes & Beaulieu, 2014; Cassese & Holman, 2017), mentorship networks (Kalla, Rosenbluth, & Teele, 2018), voter and elite bias (Teele, Kalla, and Rosenbluth, forthcoming), and candidate emergence (Karpowitz, Monson, & Preece, 2017). These projects not only enhance our understanding of gender and politics but also provide insights into the design and analysis of experiments. In this sense, feminist scholars are not simply following methodological trends in the discipline, they are also actively contributing to their growth and expansion.

Quantitative Applications to Feminist Political Science

Within political science, many feminist scholars have adopted disciplinary norms concerning appropriate methods. While critics of these methods argue that they can obscure biases faced by women, feminist scholars have effectively employed them to challenge assumptions in the political science literature. Feminist political scientists use quantitative methods, for example, to ask new research questions, pose new answers to old questions, and to expose gaps in some of the discipline’s dominant paradigms. Quantitative approaches thus play a vital role in feminist political research. In the following paragraphs, we identify several important ways in which feminist scholars have used quantitative analyses to strengthen their research and our broader understanding of politics and political science.

Revealing the Gendered Nature of Political Development, Behavior, and Institutions

When combined with a feminist lens, quantitative methods have allowed scholars to reexamine and revise our understanding of politics and conventional political science. Choosing from a myriad of cases across virtually all subfields, we focus on examples from American political development, political behavior, and political institutions.

American Political Development

Quantitative approaches that take women and gender seriously have contributed greatly to our understanding of the historical development of American politics. This work, for example, provides further evidence of women’s extensive participation in American politics prior to women’s suffrage. Carpenter and Moore (2014) use statistical analyses of anti-slavery petitions to better understand women’s political participation both before and after the American Civil War. Their work shows that women were more successful at mobilizing support for the anti-slavery cause than their male counterparts, and that women’s engagement with the anti-slavery movement provided the civic skills and networks necessary for later activism.

Teele (2018) and McConnaughy (2013) likewise use statistical analyses of historical data to reexamine the political causes underlying the uneven expansion of women’s suffrage in U.S. states prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment. In examining the role of political coalitions (McConnaughy, 2013), strategic parties, and political competition (Teele, 2018), this work provides important insights into the gendered nature of the state. Corder and Wolbrecht (2016) use quantitative data to examine the political behavior of women once suffrage was achieved—a question largely unanswered by previous work. In doing so, they incorporate women into traditional accounts of political realignment, and illustrate that previous narratives that excluded women provide an incomplete picture.

Political Behavior

Feminist political science has also applied quantitative methods to reveal systematic differences in how men and women experience the political world. Take, for example, female and male voters. Women have distinct ideological leanings (Box-Steffensmeier, De Boef, & Lin, 2004; Homola, 2017; Inglehart & Norris, 2000) and prioritize different issues (Clayton, Josefsson, Mattes, & Mozaffar, forthcoming). Differences between men and women further extend to political behavior. Regression analyses using survey data show that women in the United States and abroad are generally less politically engaged than men (Desposato & Norrander, 2009; Inglehart & Norris, 2003; Kittilson & Schwindt-Bayer, 2012). Though women are just as (and often more) likely to vote, they are less likely to follow politics in the news, discuss politics with friends, or contact their representatives (Burns, Schlozman, & Verba, 2001; Frazer & Macdonald, 2003; Inglehart & Norris, 2003). They are also less likely to engage in elite challenging actions, including protest and civic activism (Desposato & Norrander, 2009). Understanding these differences has contributed to our understanding of the political world, led to a more nuanced understanding of politics, and has important consequences for research related to representation and government responsiveness. By highlighting these gaps, feminist scholars have emphasized the ways in which women are (and are not) represented in political power structures and institutions.

Quantitative research not only reveals how men and women engage in politics differently, but also provides insights into the meaning that individuals ascribe to the representation they receive. Statistical analysis in comparative politics reveals that when women see people “like them” in power, they can become more politically engaged and ambitious (Barnes & Burchard, 2013; Desposato & Norrander, 2009; Wolbrecht & Campbell, 2007). Though evidence in the U.S. context is more mixed (see Lawless, 2004), in some cases quantitative work has linked women’s presence to heightened perceptions of democratic legitimacy (Clayton, O’Brien, & Piscopo, 2017) and increases in engagement and feelings of self-efficacy (Atkeson, 2003; Burns, Schlozman, & Verba, 2001; Atkeson & Carillo, 2007). Further, analysis of survey data in both the United States and comparative contexts reveals that when symbolic effects manifest, they need not be limited to legislative and/or electoral contexts (Badas & Stauffer, 2018a, 2018b; Barnes & Taylor-Robinson, 2018; Beauregard, 2016; Liu & Banasak, 2017; Schwindt-Bayer & Reyes-Housholder, 2017). This work not only has important implications for academic discussions of representation, but also normative implications related to justice, fairness, and equality in representative governments.

Political Institutions

Just as feminist scholars have used statistical methods to highlight men’s and women’s distinct political behaviors, they have also found systematic differences in how women and men gain, maintain, and behave in political office. At the most foundational level, quantitative research shows that men are systematically overrepresented in virtually all political posts. Quantitative scholarship based on observational data been instrumental to identifying the cultural factors, social structures, and political institutions that shape women’s inclusion in, and exclusion from, office (Fox & Lawless, 2010; Kittilson, 2008; Krook & O’Brien, 2012; Paxton, Hughes, & Green, 2006; Paxton & Kunovich, 2003; Ross, 2008). Quantitative experimental research likewise offers valuable insights into the gender-based challenges female candidates must overcome when running for political office (Bauer, 2015, 2017). Quantitative scholarship further illustrates that when women gain access to power, they often end up concentrated in low-prestige posts or positions associated with women’s traditional gender roles (Barnes & O’Brien, 2018; Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2009; Jalalzai, 2013; Reynolds, 1999). Statistical analyses further reveal distinct patterns in women’s and men’s behavior once in office (Barnes, 2016; Clayton, Josefsson, & Wang, 2017; Greene, & O’Brien, 2016), and show that women face unique challenges in these posts (Kathlene, 1994; O’Brien, 2015; Schwindt-Bayer, 2006).

While quantitative methods highlight disparities in men’s and women’s presence in political office, they also offer insights into remedying women’s underrepresentation. Work in this vein in comparative politics has focused particular attention on quota laws—legal requirements mandating the (s)election of female candidates for legislative office. Quota legislation has now been implemented in over 80 countries, and more than 30 others have at least one political party that voluntarily applies a quota policy during candidate selection (Dahlerup & Norris, 2014). Although quota policies alone are neither necessary nor sufficient for guaranteeing women’s election to national assemblies, quantitative analyses suggest that they are among the strongest predictors of women’s presence in legislatures (Paxton, Hughes, & Painter, 2010; Paxton & Hughes, 2015; Tripp & Kang, 2008) and may contribute to women’s ascension to other leadership posts (O’Brien & Rickne, 2016). Statistical analyses have also been instrumental in identifying the features that allow quota policies to be most successful, including placement mandates and sanctions for noncompliance (Schwindt-Bayer, 2009). Clearly, quantitative methods and feminist political science have drawn attention together to the most important set of electoral reforms of this generation and improved our studies of institutions and institutional design more generally.

Translating Feminist Scholarship to Policy and Politics

In addition to revealing the ways in which women and men experience politics differently, quantitative analyses provide a vehicle for feminist scholars to engage with questions of policy and politics outside of academia. Feminist research agendas should draw on, and be directly relevant to, (female) citizens’ experiences with politics. This work, in turn, provides important insights for improving women’s lives and eliminating gendered barriers that are damaging to women (and many men, too). To communicate these implications more broadly, feminist scholars must produce work that is compelling to policymakers. As Spalter-Roth and Hartmann (1987) argue, this is often difficult to accomplish in the absence of quantitative methods.

Using what they refer to as a “Dual Vision” of feminist policy research, organizations like the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) seek to produce work that is informed by a feminist methodology but that is also accessible to policy actors and will stand up to the scrutiny of government organizations. In 1987 the organization issued its inaugural report, which examined the negative ramifications for women who did not have access to job-protected leave for medical and family reasons (Spalter-Roth & Hartmann, 1987). This research contributed to discussions that eventually resulted in the Family and Medical Leave Act. Today IWPR regularly appears before Congress to discuss policy matters related to women’s economic security and produces some of the most widely cited research on the gender wage gap.

Work by organizations like IWPR illustrates that those quantitative methods can be powerful tools for feminists seeking to apply social science findings to the policy sphere. This is not to suggest that all feminists must use quantitative methods in order to speak to policy-relevant matters (nor do Spalter-Roth and Hartmann make this claim). However, a collective research agenda that includes no quantitative component is likely to encounter difficulty garnering the attention of policymakers, whereas research that incorporates quantitative techniques will likely be more successful on this front.

Demonstrating Biases Against Women in the Discipline

Finally, quantitative methods have been used to document the challenges faced by female scholars in political science. Data on scholarship produced by men and women reveals disturbing patterns. Historically, female political scientists published at lower rates than their male counterparts (Young, 1995), and Teele and Thelen (2017) demonstrate the continued underrepresentation of women in the most prestigious political science journals. This underrepresentation can be attributed in part to women’s exclusion from co-authorship networks. Women are not only underrepresented in political science journals, they are also cited less than men (Maliniak, Powers, & Walter, 2013). Interestingly, women who attend the Society for Political Methodology’s female-only quantitative methods conference—Visions in Methodology (VIM)—are better networked and more productive in terms of publications than female scholars who have not attended the event (Barnes & Beaulieu, 2017).

As well as authorship patterns, quantitative methods have been used to demonstrate that female political scientists have different career trajectories. Sumner and Key (2017) use structural topic models to show that women are both more likely to research topics that diverge from those traditionally studied in political science and also to work in “practitioner” fields like public health and public policy. Quantitative methods have also been used to show that later in their careers, women are less likely to be promoted, even when controlling for publication productivity (Hesli, Lee, & Mitchell, 2012). Clearly, women within political science—some, but not all of whom also work in the field of gender and politics—have marshaled “mainstream” approaches to research in order to lay bare the challenges faced by female academics and enhance women’s status within the discipline.

Feminist Contributions to Quantitative Methods

When used in conjunction with a feminist methodology, quantitative methods advance feminist political science and policy activism. This contribution, moreover, is reciprocal. Just as quantitative methods can benefit feminist scholarship, feminist methodology can shape the development and application of quantitative methods, including the tools used to produce, gather, and analyze data.

Data Production

Feminist methodology has important lessons for data production. First, acknowledging the researcher’s role in the production of data is central to feminist scholarship. Feminist methodology thus forces us to confront the extent to which the data generated is the result of decisions made by the researcher. This is particularly true in quantitative work that relies on survey data. Here, feminist methodology demands that researchers understand the surveys that they use, exercise care in the construction of questions and survey implementation, and recognize the limitations and biases of survey measures.

A common concern in survey research, for example, is social desirability bias. That is, respondents may answer questions not based on their true opinions, but instead offer answers they believe the researcher wants to hear, or that will cast the respondent in a favorable light (Miner-Rubino & Jayaratne, 2007). This is especially concerning in surveys that use face-to-face or phone interviews. Social desirability bias provides a good example of the researcher influencing the data production process simply by her presence. For feminist research, this could lead to gender biases being masked in the data, or a failure to accurately measure certain attitudes and behaviors. A feminist approach to survey data requires all scholars (irrespective of sex) to ask where the researcher fits within the research process and how data production is shaped by her presence.

Feminist scholarship likewise highlights the need for all survey researchers to be careful in the construction of survey questions. On this point there are two primary concerns. First, does the question measure the intended concept? Second, does the question inadvertently reinforce gender stereotypes or problematic assumptions? The first point is important for practical reasons. If a question means one thing to the researcher and another to survey respondents, its utility is lost. On the second point, scholars must be aware of their own biases and attempt to remove these biases from survey questions. Early critiques of quantitative work argued that many surveys reinforced or cued gender stereotypes among participants (Randall, 1994; Bourque & Grossholtz, 1974; Iglitzin, 1974). More recent work by Bittner and Goodyear-Grant (2017) notes that the mere inclusion of a gender question with only male and female answer options on surveys reinforces an incorrect conception of gender as a binary and risks alienating individuals who do not view themselves this way.


Closely related to issues of data production are matters related to measurement. For quantitative researchers, questions of variable construction and conceptualization are key to the research process. As with data production, there is room for a feminist perspective to influence how researchers think about measurement and the decisions that they make in the design and analysis of their data. Below we outline examples of ways that feminist methodology can shape these measurement considerations. Though by no means exhaustive, these examples are illustrative of the value of a feminist perspective.

As a consequence of the well-established gender gap in attitudes, preferences, and behaviors, sex is a near-ubiquitous control variable in studies of political behavior in American and comparative politics research. In these cases, however, sex is being used as a rough proxy for gender—which is a complex and multifaceted concept. New research, which draws heavily on feminist scholarship, seeks to disentangle the effects of sex and gender. McDermott (2016), for example, conducts a nationally representative survey to measure gendered personality traits. Her work reveals that the effects of gender, and gendered personality traits, supersede the effects of biological sex in explaining the gender gap in support for politically left and right parties in the United States. The magnitude of this effect is on par with other determinants of political behavior, including the Big Five personality traits.

Bittner and Goodyear-Grant (2017) likewise recognize that sex is not a substitute for gender. In a survey of over 6,000 Canadians, they measure both sex and gender. While sex is a dichotomous measure, gender is measured by asking respondents to place themselves on a scale ranging from 0 (100% masculine) to 100 (100% feminine) (pp. 1027–1028). Bittner and Goodyear-Grant find that for one-quarter of their sample, binary sex is not a good proxy for their finer-grained measure of gender. They also show that for some issue areas, including abortion, there are larger differences in opinion based on gender self-identification than sex. The analyses offered by McDermott and Bittner and Goodyear-Grant illustrate that feminist perspectives have meaningful implications for quantitative researchers. Feminist methodologies lead to a more nuanced set of results about the influences of sex and gender on public opinion. In fact, accounting for gender offers a more complete understanding of political attitudes and preferences. Even public opinion researchers who do not work on gender should be cognizant of these effects.

Beyond variable construction and measurement, a feminist perspective can prove insightful for researchers working with measurement models and latent concepts. One of the most common latent concepts in the behavior literature is political knowledge. Political knowledge researchers consistently observe that men are more knowledgeable than women (Delli-Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Gidengil, Giles, & Thomas, 2008; Kenski & Jamieson, 2001; Verba, Burns, & Schlozman, 1997). They base these findings on citizens’ responses to a battery of items asking questions about government. Typically, studies employing measures of political knowledge assume that the concept captures male knowledge and female knowledge equally well, yet work on survey construction shows this is not the case. Mondak and Anderson (2004), for example, find that the size of the gender gap is in large part a function of question type. Women are more likely to select “Don’t Know” when the option is present on survey items related to knowledge, whereas male respondents are more likely to guess. These sex differences in survey responses account for roughly half of the gender gap in political knowledge. Lizotte and Sidman (2009) argue that this greater propensity to guess among men is due to women being more risk-averse to negative outcomes (in this case answering a question incorrectly). They find that about one-third of the gender gap is the result of different guessing patterns.

These findings suggest that scholars should be cautious when assuming consistency in measurement across male and female respondents. They should likewise be sensitive to the possibility that these biases are not limited to gender but may also occur in other socio-economic groups (e.g., race and class). Acknowledging these differences can, in turn, guide the researcher in selecting more appropriate models to measure latent concepts. Lizotte and Sidman (2009), for example, use a joint Item Response Theory model to estimate respondents’ levels of political knowledge. This modeling strategy allows them to account for men’s greater propensity to guess within their model, ultimately producing more accurate measures of political knowledge, and thus a less biased estimate of the gender gap. A similar approach may be useful in a variety of circumstances.

Finally, the utility of a feminist perspective in quantitative studies of politics extends far beyond political behavior research. Applying a feminist lens to questions concerning democracy and democratization challenges existing paradigms and historical understandings. Caraway (2004), for example, contends there is a disconnect between theoretical work—which emphasizes universal suffrage as a necessary condition for democracy—with empirical work—which often substitutes universal male suffrage for universal suffrage. Indeed, Paxton (2000) illustrates how our understanding of democratization would differ if women’s suffrage were included in our analyses. By shifting toward a more inclusive indicator, Paxton shows that our understanding of when states completed democratic transitions, our perceptions of the emergence of democracy, and our narratives of democratic states are fundamentally incomplete if women are not incorporated into the analysis.

Integrating women and gender into studies of democracy has major implications for our understanding of the causes and consequences of democratization. Wang et al. (2017) examine the gendered aspects of democratization. They argue that providing civil rights to women increases the costs of repression and enables the formation of women’s organizing. Women’s organizing, in turn, is important for sparking protests that facilitate democratization. They provide support for this claim using sequence analysis methods to examine data covering 173 countries over the years 1900–2012. New quantitatively oriented research by Barnhart, Dafoe, Saunders, and Trager (2018) likewise reexamines democratic peace theory via a gendered lens. They argue that it is not merely the rise of democracy itself, but the increasing enfranchisement of women, which causes the democratic peace. The authors posit that because female citizens generally prefer more peaceful options than men, incorporating women into political decision-making discourages leaders from acting aggressively.


Though some view feminism and quantitative methods as at odds with one another, as feminist empiricists we reject this notion. As we have shown in this essay, feminist scholars have successfully drawn on, and contributed to, quantitative approaches to the study of politics. When used in concert with feminist methodologies, quantitative methods enhance our understanding of the role gender plays in both politics and political science. A feminist perspective can likewise guide data production and measurement by quantitative researchers. Given that gender socialization is central to men’s and women’s lived experiences, the merging of feminist methodology and quantitative methods has broad ramifications across all political domains.

Despite the potential for a fruitful relationship between the two traditions, we believe that much work remains. While feminist political science has largely embraced quantitative approaches, these scholars rarely focus their attention on developing new methods. Indeed, an assessment of the political science curricula on political methodology and gender politics conducted by Cassese et al. (2015) showed that these two areas of scholarship are “distinct and nonoverlapping,” with gender and politics texts failing to address methods (and methods texts failing to address gender). This is in part because women, who make up the overwhelming majority of feminist researchers, are underrepresented in the field of political methodology (Dion, 2014; Sedowski & Brintnall, 2007). Women are a minority of members of the APSA Political Methodology Organized Section (Breuning & Sanders, 2007, p. 348), and the Section’s summer meetings have failed to attract large numbers of female scholars (Dion, 2014). No women are included among the 20 most-cited quantitative researchers in the discipline (Masuoka, Grofman, & Feld, 2007), and only two women are represented among the Fellows of the Society of Political Methodology. There is a clear need for more cross-pollination between feminist and quantitative researchers. Drawing more gender and politics scholars into the methods community—and inspiring quantitative researchers to focus their energies on studying feminist topics and co-authoring with feminist scholars—will pay dividends for both groups and the discipline at large.


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  • 1. Since its inception, the Women’s Caucus for Political Science has advocated for increased gender equality in the discipline and has participated in activism outside of the academy. The Women’s Caucus successfully advocated for the American Political Science Association to boycott meetings in states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment during the period of ratification, and the caucus has recently been active in advocating for a number of public policies, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.