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date: 09 May 2021

The Descriptive Representation of Women in Politicsfree

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


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.

Women in Politics

More women than men hold seats in Rwanda’s legislative body. In neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, though, women occupy only 50 of the 485 seats in the lower house of congress. Bolivian women comprise 53% of the country’s legislators. But in Brazil, which borders Bolivia, women claim only 15% of legislative seats. Descriptive representation—sometimes referred to as numerical representation—assesses whether those in power reflect the demographic characteristics of the population broadly: the descriptive representation of women has largely been interpreted as the number or percentage of women holding political office (and often as the number of women elected to national parliaments).

Seventy-five years ago, women were radically absent from positions of power, occupying less than 2% of seats in democratically elected legislative bodies (Thames & Williams, 2013). Although in 2020 it is no longer the case that women are not represented in politics, the descriptive representation of women remains far from equitable: women hold only a quarter of legislative seats worldwide. Although there is significant variation, in no region of the world are women fairly represented, as table 1 shows. This article reviews the study of women’s descriptive representation.

Table 1. Women’s Legislative Representation, Regional Averages



Average Legislative Representation








Sub-Saharan Africa






Middle East and North Africa





Note: Data from Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of June 1, 2020. Information for lower/unicameral legislative chambers.

The chapter provides an overview of the two categories of academic work that have defined the literature on women’s descriptive representation. The first category of studies seeks to explain variation in women’s descriptive representation. A second category examines the effects of women’s descriptive representation; in other words, this scholarship asks how women’s descriptive representation matters. Does it matter for the representation of women’s interests in the policymaking process? Does having more women in politics change citizen attitudes, by increasing political knowledge, political interest, or views of government? Finally, the chapter concludes by discussing significant questions that remain in the study of women’s descriptive representation and providing suggested avenues for future research.

Explaining Women’s Descriptive Representation

Substantial variation exists in women’s descriptive representation. In Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico, women hold at least half of seats in the legislature, but in Lebanon, Nigeria, and Vanuatu (among others) women hold fewer than 5% of legislative seats (Inter-Parliamentary Union). Table 2 provides data on the countries occupying the top 20 spots in rankings of women’s legislative representation.

Table 2. Women’s Legislative Representation, Global Top 20



Total Legislators

Women Legislators

% Women Legislators

Rank in 2000




















United Arab Emirates






























South Africa


















Costa Rica
















































New Zealand





Note: Data from Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of June 1, 2020. Data for June 2000 is also available from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Information for lower/unicameral legislative chambers.

Women’s numerical representation in the legislatures of the world is marked in two ways. First, striking change has occurred since 2000. Secondly, and significantly, Global South countries have made notable headway.

In 2000, Sweden was the only country in the world where women occupied at least 40% of legislative seats. Fewer than 30 countries had women in at least 20% of parliamentary seats (Inter-Parliamentary Union). Yet, by 2020, 110 countries of the world had achieved that same level of women’s representation and every country listed in Table 2, along with Belgium, Belarus, North Macedonia, and Portugal, had at least 40% women’s representation in their legislatures.

The dramatic increase in women’s legislative representation has been accompanied by another notable phenomenon: the pattern appears to be one of Global South countries overtaking those of the Global North. Countries like the United Arab Emirates, Nicaragua, and Senegal have ratcheted up the rankings since 2000 and countries that had long been world leaders in women’s representation lost out. The countries that tumbled down the rankings usually have done so because others—and especially those of the Global South—made huge leaps and not because of regression or even stagnation in their own levels of women’s descriptive representation. For example, Sweden was ranked first in the world in 2000 with 42.7% women in its legislative body. By 2020, Sweden had slid to seventh place, despite increasing the proportion of women to 47%. Similarly, Finland’s proportion of women rose from 36.5% in 2000 to 46.0%, but the country dropped to 11th place.

What explains the rise in women’s representation in Bolivia, allowing it to shoot up from 56th place to 3rd in just two decades? The extensive scholarship on women’s descriptive representation attempts to explain these changes over time, but also is motivated to understand why women’s descriptive representation is high in some places but low in others. In other words, why does women’s legislative representation in the Democratic Republic of Congo trail that of neighboring Rwanda?

Social and Cultural Factors

Early academic work attempted to answer these questions by focusing on women’s roles in society, arguing that the deficit of women’s leadership was a function of an inadequate supply of women capable of stepping into politics. The responsibility for women’s underrepresentation lay with girls’ and women’s educational levels and workforce participation (Kenworthy & Malami, 1999). Moreover, women’s educational gains were viewed as providing women entry into the workforce, and specifically into careers more likely to lead to political opportunities. Scholars theorized that women in remunerated work obtained the skills and confidence to engage politically (Schlozman et al., 1994). This focus on workforce participation also called attention to certain paths to power, that is, that some careers are more likely to lead to women’s participation in electoral politics than others, for example, law (Lawless & Fox, 2010).

The expectation was that as women became more educated and more likely to work outside the home their presence in politics would naturally rise. But empirical work found that women’s educational levels do not automatically translate into parliamentary representation: countries with more educated women do not have more women legislators (Paxton & Kunovich, 2003). By 2020, in over 100 countries of the world, girls and women outpaced men in their educational attainments and were more likely to obtain college degrees (Paxton et al., 2020), and yet women still held only a quarter of legislative seats worldwide. Although some studies have found no connection with women’s labor force participation rates (Kenworthy & Malami, 1999; Paxton, 1997), most work has found a positive relationship (Matland, 1998; Paxton & Kunovich, 2003). Despite women’s significant inclusion in the labor force in the latter decades of the 20th century, women’s numerical representation in legislatures climbed only slowly.

While parties may often complain that there are not enough qualified women to be candidates (emphasizing that the underrepresentation of women is a function of supply), these claims are demonstrably false (Josefsson, 2020). Across the globe, there are more than sufficient women with the credentials to enter politics. When Mexican party leaders argued that they were unable to find qualified women to meet gender quota requirements, women’s organizations published the names of 1,000 possible women candidates in the country’s largest circulating newspaper (Piscopo, 2016d).

Scholars also turned to cultural explanations to understand women’s descriptive representation (Inglehart & Norris, 2003). This body of work determined that more egalitarian cultures were more likely to have more women in politics, often focusing on the role of religion. Some religious traditions (Protestant Christians and nondenominational groups) were seen as more egalitarian, while others (Muslims) had more traditional views toward gender equality; “the evidence indicates that traditional religious values and religious laws have played an important role in reinforcing social norms of a separate and subordinate role for women as homemakers and mothers” (Inglehart & Norris, 2003, p. 68). Predominantly Catholic and Muslim countries had lower levels of women’s legislative representation than Protestant countries. Academic work has also examined how religiosity may matter for women’s access to political office (Inglehart & Norris, 2003).

Culture could be used to explain not only supply-side factors, but also demand-side ones. While culture could inhibit a supply of qualified women candidates—that is, certain cultures might circumscribe the educational and professional opportunities that could position women for political careers or deem women’s political participation as off limits—it could also explain parties’ reluctance to field women candidates and voters’ reluctance to cast ballots for women.

But empirical reality poses an undeniable contradiction to the scholarship that primes culture. Once thought to be too traditional and machista, Latin America has seen explosive growth of women’s political power (with six countries of the region represented in the global top 20). The Americas lead women’s legislative representation, as documented in table 1, not because of the United States (which ranks 83rd with 23.6% women’s representation in Congress) or Canada (56th place), but because of Latin America. Cultural explanations have been criticized for their inability to explain change over short periods (especially in areas long thought to have cultures inconsistent with women’s political careers) or to explain differences within regions with shared cultural traditions.

Across a variety of cultures, gendered stereotypes can affect not only how women position themselves as candidates but how they are treated by competitors, party elites, and voters. Although voter bias is often offered up to explain away women’s political underrepresentation, newer scholarship finds that such bias may be mitigated by women’s greater propensity to vote for female candidates (Dolan, 2008; Golder et al., 2017). Additionally, stereotypes—of women as more honest, trustworthy, and less corrupt—might make women more attractive to voters, especially in certain contexts (Barnes & Beaulieu, 2018; Morgan & Buice, 2013).

The most extreme form of bias manifests in violence. Harassment against women politicians, including acts of physical violence, as documented by political scientists (Krook, 2020) may discourage women from entering politics. Moreover, although politics has often been seen as a “dirty game” inappropriate for women, rising levels of political violence in countries such as Mexico and concerns about gendered violence may dissuade women’s political engagement (Piscopo, 2016a).

Institutional Factors

Scholarship has asked how the rules of the political game structure women’s opportunities. Initial work in this area focused on electoral systems. Evidence emerged that proportional representation systems were friendlier to women than single-member district systems because of ticket balancing (Paxton, 1997). In single-member district systems, parties could not represent different groups and were instead advantaged if they chose a candidate that was least likely to face bias. Closed-list proportional representation systems were seen as potentially more advantageous than open-list systems if party leaders put women in electable positions on those lists (Jones, 1996). District magnitude also mattered, as 3-seat districts presented different constraints for parties than ones with 10 seats or more (Schwindt-Bayer, 2005). But additionally, scholars pointed to the primacy of party magnitude and asked that researchers consider this variable’s effects (Matland, 1993). Electoral rules also could affect women’s descriptive representation. Incumbency could prove an impediment to women’s access to power (Schwindt-Bayer, 2005).

Gender Quotas: An Institutional Boost to Women’s Descriptive Representation

Social and cultural factors cannot explain why Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico sit at the top of the global rankings presented in table 2, and neither can explanations about electoral systems or district magnitude. Instead, it is the emergence of gender quotas that has pushed the countries of the Global South to outpace those of the Global North. Quotas have become the most important explanation for changing patterns in women’s descriptive representation.

The growing research focus on the role of institutions in explaining women’s descriptive representation was intertwined with the emergence of gender quotas—affirmative action policies intended to augment women’s descriptive representation. Legislated gender quotas were first applied in Argentina in 1991, mandating that parties assign women candidates to 30% of the spots on electoral lists. The use of quotas quickly spread. By 2015, gender quotas were in use in over 75 countries (Hughes et al., 2019) and largely drive the types of changes seen in Table 2. Rwanda, Bolivia, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico have all adopted quotas, and though Cuban officials deny using a quota, the National Candidate Commission does consider gender in making determinations (Luciak, 2005). The adoption of quotas may have more to do with a desire to “seem modern and prove their credentials on democracy and human rights” (Htun, 2016, p. 44) and less to do with a commitment to women’s descriptive representation, but the use of quotas has powerfully changed the numbers of women in politics (Tripp & Kang, 2008).

The term “gender quota” is often used to refer to different things. First, the term “gender quotas” is often applied—and is used here—to refer to legislated candidate quotas, sometimes also referred to as national quotas. These quotas require all parties to field more gender-equitable candidate slates; these are “measures passed by national parliaments requiring that all parties nominate a certain percentage of women” (Krook & O’Brien, 2010, p. 260). As of 2020, legislated candidate quotas are in use in countries throughout the world, including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, and the Czech Republic. For some countries, the quota threshold can be set at 20% (meaning that parties are to nominate a minimum of 20% women to candidate lists), whereas others set much higher thresholds (and often thresholds are raised over time). Since 2009, more countries have started to adopt gender parity provisions calling for equal representation of men and women on candidate lists (Piscopo, 2016b).

Second, the term “gender quota” has sometimes been used to describe reserved seats for women. These are different from the candidate quotas in that a set percentage or number of seats in the legislature are set aside for women. These reservations thereby guarantee a certain number of women in office, unlike candidate quotas. Although candidate quotas have become the norm in Latin America (where all countries save Guatemala have passed quotas) and are increasingly used in Europe, reserved seats are more likely to be found in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. As of 2020, reserved seats were used in only 25 countries (Quota Project, 2020).

Finally, the term “gender quota” can be used to describe voluntary party quotas. These types of quotas are adopted by political parties themselves. Parties began adopting voluntary quotas in the 1970s; for example, the Norwegian Labor Party, the Danish Social Democratic Party, and the Swedish Social Democratic Party began to set aside at least 40% of candidacies for women, with other parties following suit over the years (Htun, 2016). At least 30 countries have at least one party using voluntary quotas (and many have multiple parties that utilize these).

Voluntary party quotas are compatible with legislated candidate quotas and reserved seats. Because voluntary quotas are not legally binding, parties have adopted these measures and then failed to meet their own requirements (Funk et al., 2017). Cultural variables may determine whether parties comply with voluntary gender quotas (Davidson-Schmich, 2006), but others have hypothesized that the effectiveness of voluntary quotas may be tied to a specific condition: a situation where a single party predominates. Voluntary party quotas

appear to be operating effectively in very specific circumstances: in European countries where traditions of gender equality already predominate (Iceland and Norway), or in African states where a single party controls most or all of the legislature (Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa). This pattern continues for the additional 13 countries with more than one-third women in parliament.

(O’Brien & Piscopo, 2018, pp. 154–155)

Quotas have inspired a significant body of academic research. Seminal work noted that not all quotas were created equal and turned scholarly attention toward understanding the effects of quota design by elucidating the contexts in which quotas were most effective (Htun & Jones, 2002). For example, Htun and Jones explained that quotas worked best in closed-list proportional representation systems, although others have identified scenarios in which quotas can effectively function in open-list systems (Matland, 2006; Schmidt & Saunders, 2004). Scholars also sought to understand the importance of enforcement mechanisms (Dahlerup & Freidenvall, 2005).

Quotas have not been successful in boosting women’s descriptive representation everywhere. For example, Guinea’s 30% quota was seen as ineffective, largely because of the absence of any penalty for noncompliance (Inter-Parliamentary Union [IPU]). Similarly, the Brazilian quota did little to increase the number of women in congress. While the quota’s negligible effects are often attributed to the country’s open list proportional representation rules, scholars have found that decentralized party procedures and women’s lack of representation in party leadership positions help explain the quota’s failure (Wylie & Dos Santos, 2016).

“First generation” quota laws were notoriously weak—which may have facilitated their passage—and required repeated reforms to make them work (Piscopo, 2016c). About one-third of countries with quotas have made reforms to these laws, including Guinea (Hughes et al., 2019). In Mexico, parties initially were exempt from meeting the quota if they used (or claimed to use) internal “democratic” practices, such as primaries, to choose candidates (Baldez, 2007). Parties abused this exemption until prevented from doing so; only via repeated reforms was Mexico able to create a potent quota (Piscopo, 2016d).

Although countries continue to adopt quotas, there is a new push toward gender parity. Such parity laws require 50–50 representation on candidate lists. Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama have passed parity laws. While often thought of as quotas with a 50% threshold, parity legislation, scholars have argued, is more than a quota, as it constitutes a fundamental redefinition of the representational role in democracies (Piscopo, 2016b). Parity, proponents argue, “expresses (rather than just advances) democracy”; whereas quotas are seen as temporary means of increasing women’s descriptive representation, parity is instead a “permanent mechanism used to achieve gender balance” (Piscopo, 2016b, p. 226).

Political Party and Contextual Factors

Even excluding discussions of voluntary party quotas and their effects, a significant body of work has emerged to explain the role of parties in women’s underrepresentation. Early work focused on party ideology and largely found that parties of the left were more likely to include women than parties of the right (Duverger, 1955; Studlar & McAllister, 1991). But findings have been mixed. Although some found that leftist parties are more likely to nominate and elect women (Caul, 2001), others did not find the expected effect (Funk et al., 2017). Additionally, leftist Latin American parties do not have more women occupying internal positions of power than parties of the right (Funk et al., 2017). Yet, in distinguishing among leftist parties, separating “old left” parties from “new left” parties proved an important innovation (Kittilson, 2006). Ideological distinctions can help explain which parties voluntarily utilize quotas or push for the adoption of national quotas.

Pioneering work delved into party candidate selection procedures and recruitment practices to understand how these could either encourage or limit women’s candidacies (Norris & Lovenduski, 1995). Parties could be seen as gatekeepers and recruitment and selection processes could either work for or against women. In this vein, scholars looked at the rules of candidate selection. For example, work examined localized versus centralized nomination processes, with some (Caul, 2001) finding that localized nominations provided women with greater opportunities, whereas others showed that centralized procedures proved advantageous to women because local power monopolies often kept women out of power (Hinojosa, 2012). Similarly, work emerged examining how institutionalized candidate selection could facilitate women’s ballot access (Bjarnegård & Kenny, 2016; Bjarnegård & Zetterberg, 2016). Moreover, scholarship also analyzed the role of inclusive versus exclusive decision making, that is, whether decision making was done by an individual or a small group or by large groups, with some scholars arguing that women’s access to candidacies was hindered by primaries (Baldez, 2007; Hinojosa, 2012).

Gender quotas, and especially legislated candidate quotas, radically altered candidate selection, forcing parties to alter practices in order to meet stated thresholds. But additionally, parties needed to re-examine not only formal processes of selection, but also the more informal procedures of recruitment. Recruitment and selection rely on the use of gender stereotypes by party selectors or imputed discrimination on their behalf (see Funk et al., 2019; Norris & Lovenduski, 1995), but recruitment especially requires that selectors tap into their personal networks. Scholars have noted that understanding women’s descriptive representation requires studying men and their gatekeeping roles (Bjarnegard, 2013; Valdini, 2019). Women are often excluded from the elite networks that choose candidates, and potential women candidates often remain outside selectors’ networks. Bias on the part of gatekeepers can limit women’s descriptive representation (Bjarnegård, 2013; Kenny, 2013), but intra-party competition may provide new opportunities (Funk et al., 2019).

Important work emerged from American politics in 2010 that challenged work on candidate selection and recruitment procedures in explaining women’s underrepresentation, shifting the onus from parties to women themselves. The lack of women officeholders was the result of an ambition gap; simply put, women did not want to run for office (Lawless & Fox, 2010). The research design allowed the study’s authors to tap women and men that were in the pool of potential future candidates, and demonstrated gendered differences in ambition levels. However, it is important to note that in most places of the world, individuals do not just throw their hats into the ring; instead, parties must ask them to run. Moreover, the concept of political ambition fails to take into account that women’s reticence to enter politics may be a strategic decision in response to the barriers that have long prevented political access to women. Comparativists urge scholars to move away from a discussion of a gender gap in political ambition and instead note the myriad gendered dynamics of candidate emergence (Piscopo & Kenny, 2020).

Although the American politics literature has long explored the role of money in explaining women’s underrepresentation, this topic has received less attention outside the United States and especially in the Global South. New research on Africa, however, finds that fundraising affects women’s abilities to not only get elected but to even become candidates—with some parties refusing to give women candidacies if they are unable to demonstrate their potential to finance a campaign (Bauer & Darkwah, 2019; Wang et al., 2019). This scholarship also analyzes how gendered financing schemes have often failed to increase women’s descriptive representation. Research on Brazil also finds that women are disadvantaged because of financing (Wylie, 2018). Although the U.S. politics literature has often found that women ultimately do not lag behind men in their fundraising (Burrell, 2014), this may owe to greater efforts by women to overcome what they expect will be a disadvantage.

Academic work has also turned to examining how political context may encourage or discourage women’s political participation. Parties may turn to women candidates in certain contexts, as a result of their own gender stereotypes or their assumptions about voter bias. When there is low trust in politicians, parties may be more likely to nominate women who are seen as more honest and less corrupt than men (Funk et al., 2017, 2019). In other words, the “inclusion calculation” for men changes in contexts where parties are beginning to lose their hold on power, encouraging male elites to allow for greater inclusion of women (Valdini, 2019). Women may be more likely to obtain positions of power in contexts of crisis, that is, the glass cliff theory, or when their support starts to wane (Beckwith, 2015; Funk, 2017; Verge & Astudillo, 2019).

Does Women’s Descriptive Representation Matter?

A second category of scholarship examines the effects of women’s descriptive representation. Scholars have assessed whether women’s descriptive representation matters in a number of different ways, often relying on Hannah Pitkin’s (1967) theoretical work to delineate three major facets of representation: descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation. Whereas descriptive representation looks at the numbers of women in political office, substantive representation refers to the representation of group interests in the policymaking process, examining what these women do while in office. Symbolic representation refers to the feelings and attitudes that political symbols motivate; it “emphasizes that representation is a symbol that generates emotional responses among constituents” (Schwindt-Bayer, 2010, p. 6).

Does Descriptive Representation Beget More Descriptive Representation?

First, scholars have assessed whether having women in positions of power leads to more women candidates and officeholders. In other words, does women’s descriptive representation beget more descriptive representation? The findings here are mixed.

Some scholars have examined whether having women in party elite positions results in a boost for the number of women candidates and officeholders. For Western European countries, women’s representation among the party elite promotes women’s descriptive representation (Kittilson, 2006). However, work on 168 Latin American political parties finds that having women in positions of power does not lead to more women candidates or officeholders (Funk et al., 2017).

Others have examined whether women executives are more likely to appoint more women to political positions. Scholars utilizing both large-n statistical analyses (Krook & O’Brien, 2012) and in-depth case studies (Annesley et al., 2019) have found that women chief executives are not more likely to appoint women to their cabinets. Nor does women’s leadership result in a greater likelihood that women will be appointed to high-prestige cabinet positions (Krook & O’Brien, 2012; O’Brien et al., 2015).

Some scholars note the role of contagion in explaining where we see increases in women’s descriptive representation, arguing that parties feel pressured to include more women in their candidate slates if other parties nominate larger percentages of women (Matland & Studlar, 1996). Building on this concept of contagion, others have documented contagion across political positions as well (Thames & Williams, 2013). The increase in women legislators can lead to increased descriptive representation of women in cabinets or on courts (Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2005). Similarly, women’s representation in subnational politics also benefits from diffusion (Escobar-Lemmon & Funk, 2018). Although contagion across parties is premised on competition and a need to maintain electoral advantage, the idea that contagion might happen across political positions is instead based on recruitment and selection. As more women serve as legislators, the pool of potential women cabinet members grows. Similarly, as women gain experience as council members, they are more likely to be recruited to run for mayoral positions.

Does Descriptive Representation Lead to Substantive Representation?

A second category of work has examined the effects of women’s descriptive representation on the substantive representation of women. Empirical work has answered this question definitively: having more women in politics matters for the kinds of policies that we get.

Important work by Franceschet and Piscopo (2008) added clarity to this literature by distinguishing between substantive representation as process and substantive representation as outcome. This scholarship rightly noted that although some researchers saw the introduction of women’s rights legislation as itself evidence of substantive representation (as process), others looked to see that such legislation passed (women’s substantive representation as outcome). Women’s incorporation into legislative bodies has enhanced the substantive representation of women in the policy process (Swers, 2005; Wolbrecht, 2002) but has not always resulted in greater policy outcomes (Weldon, 2002). Having more women in legislative office may mean that women’s interests are represented in debates and in the type of legislation proposed, but may not result in policy changes.

As some have noted, “Determining whether female politicians change the content of policymaking first requires knowing which policy interests women should be expected to represent” (O’Brien & Piscopo, 2019, p. 54). Women’s interests have typically been defined as those which explicitly address issues affecting women—for example, abortion and domestic violence—or their roles as wives and mothers—for example, daycare and education. But must women’s interests be feminist interests? Scholars have different views on the matter. The answer to this question has important implications for studies of substantive representation and can also warp assessments of whether women’s descriptive representation matters for substantive representation. Women may be working on education bills, but if only feminist policymaking is considered substantive representation, then these women’s advocacy would not be counted. Importantly, women legislators may alter policymaking in other ways. Greater women’s descriptive representation can change policy priorities, as evidenced by less spending on defense and decreases in conflict behavior (Koch & Fulton, 2011).

In analyzing the effects of descriptive representation on substantive representation, scholars had long argued that the numbers of women in office matter: that a critical mass was necessary to effect change. Scholarship then shifted to focusing on the role of critical actors (Childs & Krook, 2009).

How Does Descriptive Representation Affect Symbolic Representation?

Third, scholars have gauged the effects of women’s descriptive representation on the symbolic representation of women. These scholars have largely analyzed how the descriptive representation of women affects citizens (interest in politics, trust and satisfaction with the system, knowledge of politics). Hampered in part by differing definitions of what symbolic representation entails, examining these connections has proven challenging, and results have been mixed.

The lack of descriptive representation of women sends the message that “women cannot rule, or are not suitable for rule” (Mansbridge, 1999, p. 649). Empirical work has assessed the effects of this in a number of ways. For example, work has focused on democratic legitimacy and satisfaction with democracy. Using survey experiments, scholars have found that when women are equally represented on committees, this provides legitimacy to decisions and increases trust in institutions (Clayton et al., 2019). Using statistical analyses, academic work established that the descriptive representation of women makes legislatures more legitimate and increases trust in these bodies (Schwindt-Bayer & Mishler, 2005). Similarly, citizens are more satisfied with democracy where there are greater numbers of women in legislative office (Karp & Banducci, 2008).

Utilizing a panel survey in Uruguay timed around the 2014 elections (which doubled the number of women senators), scholars found that 6 weeks prior to the election, the expected gender gaps existed: women were less politically knowledgeable and politically interested than men. Weeks after the election, those gender gaps had largely disappeared or waned significantly. Women were as politically engaged as men, and women had become (statistically) more politically supportive than men, demonstrating greater trust in institutions (Hinojosa & Kittilson, 2020).

The presence of women executives increases interest in politics, and female citizens may become more participatory when there is a woman president (Alexander & Jalalzai, 2020; Schwindt-Bayer & Reyes-Housholder, 2017). Where there are more female members of cabinet, women engage in more political activities: voting, joining parties, signing petitions, and demonstrating (Liu & Banaszak, 2017). Women’s descriptive representation may spur interest, which leads to greater political participation.

Others, however, have found that women’s descriptive representation does not make women more politically engaged and fails to increase trust in government (Barnes & Jones, 2018; Jalalzai, 2015; Karp & Banducci, 2008). There is disagreement regarding whether the descriptive representation of women affects men. Although scholars have often looked only on the effects that more women in office have on women citizens, some work has found that male citizens do not become more politically engaged when there are greater numbers of women in office or when they are represented by a woman (Barnes & Burchard; 2013; High-Pippert & Comer; 1998).

New Pathways in Descriptive Representation

The study of women’s descriptive descriptive representation can be enriched in two ways. First, scholars can reconceptualize the term. Second, scholars can expand the application of descriptive representation.

Reconceptualizing Descriptive Representation

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 often simply in the national legislature—as a measure of descriptive representation, a more expansive approach to defining women’s descriptive representation is needed. Scholars have compellingly argued that talking functions can be a form of descriptive representation (Piscopo, 2011; Swers, 2002). For example, “When a legislator provides relevant information about a represented population, he or she engages in one type of descriptive representation” (Shogan, 2001, p. 130). Alternatively, talking functions can be characterized as descriptive representation when a woman “speaks as” a woman, thus calling attention to her role as a woman—via the use of phrases like “as a woman” or “as a mother” in her speechmaking (Hinojosa et al., 2018). Descriptive representatives may also use nonverbal means of invoking their gender or other identities, thereby expanding what it means to be a descriptive representative. For example, when Evo Morales wore an alpaca wool suit embroidered with an indigenous motif to his inauguration, he called out his ethnic identity as the first indigenous person elected president of Bolivia via his choice of outfit (Hinojosa et al., 2018).

When scholars think about women’s descriptive representation, they must remain ever vigilant to the other groups that women descriptively represent. This may mean considering the representational functions of Afro-descendent women, transgender women, working-class women, and more. Work on Asian parliaments has found that it is not only young women that are underrepresented, but also elderly women, providing an indication that women are only desirable candidates for a fixed period of their lives (Joshi & Och, 2014).

More scholarship on women’s descriptive representation needs to take an intersectional approach—thinking through the variety of ways in which women serve as descriptive representatives—to studying both the factors that help or hinder women’s access to political posts and the ways in which descriptive representation translates into substantive or symbolic representation. Minority women are doubly disadvantaged: “Institutional barriers disadvantage even the most privileged women, suggesting that women from marginalized groups will face additional challenges to attaining political office” (O’Brien & Piscopo, 2018, p. 149). In addition to the obstacles that women face, members of minority groups are hampered in their access to representation, and in countries across the globe, the political rights of (typically ethnic) minority groups remain formally restricted (Paxton & Hughes, 2016). Minority women are far more underrepresented in politics than minority men worldwide, occupying on average only 2% of legislative seats (Hughes, 2011). Yet some have argued that minority women may enjoy an advantage relative to minority men (Bejarano, 2013; Celis & Erzeel, 2017). Political parties—and certainly those in countries with both a gender quota and an ethnic quota—are able to address concerns about gender and racial diversity with a single candidate. In effect, minority women allow parties to double-count, potentially making minority women more attractive.

Expanding Descriptive Representation

Women’s descriptive representation has too often been a study of women in national legislatures. Examining women’s descriptive representation in legislative bodies is telling, but it may be even more informative to investigate how women are represented within those legislative bodies. Are women represented in important committees and in leadership positions? In fact, women are less likely to serve on the most important legislative committees or in leadership posts (Barnes, 2016; Heath et al., 2005). Moreover, academics have found that gender distribution within legislative committees has consequences: women are more active participants on committees with a more equitable gender makeup (Funk et al., 2017).

The study of women’s descriptive representation must not just delve more deeply into legislatures but must also include women’s access to high courts (Escobar-Lemmon et al.,2021), women serving in executive positions (Jalalzai, 2013), women in ministerial positions (Annesley et al., 2019; Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2005), and women in bureaucracies (Meier & Funk, 2017). The study of descriptive representation has been bettered by examining women across a range of positions, not solely in legislatures.

The work on women’s representation in executive positions (as presidents, governors, and mayors) has provided new insight into access points for women into political office (Jalalzai, 2008; Reyes-Housholder & Thomas, 2018). For example, work on the role of family connections in facilitating access for women executives has broadened conceptions of paths to power (Jalalzai, 2015). Work on executives has provided insights into how crisis or instability provide openings for women’s leadership (Jalalzai, 2013).

Work on cabinet ministers has uncovered a dynamic through which women’s descriptive representation can be sustained: a “concrete floor” refers to the idea that once the proportion of women in cabinet grows, there are costs for a future selector to lower the percentage of women cabinet members (Annesley et al., 2019). Careful qualitative work may uncover similar mechanisms at work in other political positions. Moreover, research into female cabinet members finds that women are hampered in their efforts to substantively represent women because of the restrictions of their portfolios (Taylor-Robinson & Gleitz, 2018), reminding scholars that descriptive representation within the cabinet may not suffice. Even in these ministerial positions, women may be sidelined.

Too often women’s representation in local level politics is left out. But examining within-country variation in women’s descriptive representation could be particularly fruitful in understanding the factors that affect women’s descriptive representation. For example, in the American politics subfield, scholars utilized variation in selection methods to state supreme courts to find that appointment was more effective in getting women onto courts than elections (Bratton & Spill, 2002).

Often this type of subnational work is more onerous: qualitative scholars may find that travel becomes too costly; quantitative scholars may find that information that is readily available for the national level is simply inaccessible for the local level. However, greater knowledge of women’s representation at the local level can further our understanding of descriptive representation generally. To illustrate, subnational work from Brazil finds that although the representation of women in elected office at the municipal level does not lead to greater descriptive representation of women in municipal bureaucracies, they do create bureaucracies that are more gender equitable by decreasing the gender wage gap (Funk et al., 2017). These findings indicate that women mayors are more likely to promote women already serving in the bureaucracy, contradicting work at the national level finding that the presence of a woman executive does not lead to the promotion of more women (Krook & O’Brien, 2012). These inconsistent findings may point to the fact that at local levels there are fewer impediments to promoting women, potentially a result of the lower prestige and visibility of these subnational positions. The application of gender quotas to subnational levels may push scholars to broaden their conceptions of descriptive representation. Seventy-four countries were utilizing subnational quotas in 2019, including in Namibia, Burkina Faso, and Mexico (Paxton et al., 2020).

Finally, the concept of descriptive representation is rarely applied to women’s participation within parties, and yet examining women’s representation in parties reinforces findings that women remain marginalized from true power. In Latin America, women are well represented in the party membership but occupy only 23% of seats on parties’ national executive boards (Morgan & Hinojosa, 2018). Expanding the focus beyond legislative positions provides insights into the causes of women’s political underrepresentation. Work on women’s political representation in Argentina found that legislative representation is largely a function of formal institutions (electoral rules and the application of gender quotas) but that women’s representation within parties and in executive positions depends on informal institutions and political factors (Barnes & Jones, 2018). Further work on women’s representation within parties may provide answers to why women are kept from the most powerful positions and elucidate conditions under which women are able to obtain such positions.


The questions of when, why, and how women obtain political office remain germane in the 21st century, as women’s descriptive representation continues to lag. The implications of this lack of descriptive representation are all too real: policy debates uninformed by women’s voices and ultimately legislation that does not consider its impact on women. And the inequitable representation of women in politics sends a message of exclusion to women citizens: the descriptive underrepresentation of women signals that women are unfit for politics.

The study of women’s descriptive representation would benefit from broadening its scope, to entail more work on women’s presence outside of legislative bodies—women’s descriptive representation is women’s representation in judiciaries, cabinets, and municipal councils, but also in bureaucracies and in central banks. But new ways of conceptualizing descriptive representatives (rethinking the functions they undertake, and also taking into account intersectional concerns) provide a pathway to expand knowledge on the critical role of women in politics.


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