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date: 26 June 2022

The Descriptive Representation of Women in Politicslocked

The Descriptive Representation of Women in Politicslocked

  • Magda HinojosaMagda HinojosaSchool of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University

Summary

Women remain strikingly underrepresented in politics: as of 2020, women hold only 25% of seats in the world’s national legislatures. Studies of women’s descriptive representation can be divided into two broad categories. The first category of scholarship seeks to understand when, why, and how women are elected to political office. Earlier academic work on the descriptive representation of women primarily analyzed social (educational levels, workforce participation rates) and cultural factors to understand women’s descriptive underrepresentation in politics. Institutional factors emerged as a significant area of scholarship, buoyed by the adoption and near immediate success of gender quotas. Scholarship has also centered on political parties and contextual factors (candidate selection and recruitment processes, the effects of crisis).

A second category of work examines the effects of women’s descriptive representation on the substantive and symbolic representation of women, and increasingly whether women’s descriptive representation begets more women in office. The scholarship on the relationship between descriptive and substantive representation has found strong evidence that having women in office results in the representation of women’s interests. Establishing how the descriptive representation of women affects citizen attitudes—such as their interest in politics and trust in government institutions—has yielded more mixed results. Nonetheless, the scholarship on the effects of women’s descriptive representation largely confirms that having women in office matters for outcomes related to policy and citizen attitudes.

The rich work that has been done to date on women’s descriptive representation could benefit from expanding the definition of the term. Although scholars have relied on a head count of women in positions of power—and notably often just in the national legislature—to assess descriptive representation, a more expansive approach to defining women’s descriptive representation is needed. Researchers ought to consider other ways in which representatives can descriptively represent constituents, for example, by calling attention to their role as women in their parliamentary speeches. Moreover, the study of women’s descriptive representation would benefit from greater attention to women’s descriptive representation at subnational levels; too often, the proportion of women in the national legislature is equated with women’s descriptive representation, leaving out how women can be descriptively represented at other levels of office, in particular, in local positions. Examining within-country variation in women’s officeholding could be particular fruitful in understanding the factors that affect women’s descriptive representation, including the pipelines to higher office. Furthermore, studying differences in descriptive representation for elected versus appointed positions could prove instructive. In addition, more scholarship is needed that takes an intersectional approach to studying both the factors that help or hinder women’s descriptive representation and the ways in which descriptive representation affects substantive and symbolic representation.

Subjects

  • Governance/Political Change
  • Groups and Identities
  • Political Institutions

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