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date: 22 January 2020

Men’s Political Representation

Summary and Keywords

In much research on gender and representation, the constraining factors for women’s political representation have served as a backdrop against which women’s activities are contextualized, rather than as a primary focus of research. Research explicitly focusing on men’s overrepresentation in politics does the opposite: it puts the reproduction of male dominance at the center of the analysis. Such a focus on men and masculinities and their relation to political power requires a set of analytical tools that are partly distinctly different from the tools used to analyze women’s underrepresentation. A feminist institutionalist framework is used to identify the logic of recruitment underpinning the reproduction of male dominance. It proposes and elaborates on two main types of political capital that under certain circumstances may reinforce male dominance and resist challenges to it: homosocial capital, consisting of instrumental and expressive rules favoring different types of similarity; and male capital, consisting of sexist and patriarchal resources that always favor men. Although the different types of political capital may be empirically related, they should be analytically separated because they require different methodological approaches and call for different strategies for change.

Keywords: representation, men, masculinities, political resources, political capital, gender, feminist institutionalism, homosocial capital

The Persistent Reproduction of the Political Overrepresentation of Men

Men make up 77% of the world’s parliamentarians (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2016). This implies that most studies about political representation are, at least implicitly, concerned with the political representation of men. Yet, the male dominance of parliaments has seldom been at the center of analyses of political representation. Literature on representation that does not acknowledge the gendered nature of political representation is often about men, but without naming them “as men.” Instead, seemingly gender-neutral words like “representative,” “candidate,” “parliamentarian,” or “politician” have served to disguise the empirical male norm. The vast majority of research on gendered aspects of political representation, on the other hand, has focused on women. The problem of women’s underrepresentation has overshadowed the highly related problem of the stark overrepresentation of men in most legislatures across the world. Constraining factors for women’s political representation have served more as a backdrop against which women’s political activities are contextualized than as a primary focus of research. However, a new research field has begun to explicitly focus on men’s overrepresentation in politics by putting the reproduction of male political dominance at the center of the analysis (Bjarnegård, 2013; Murray, 2014). The new focus on men and masculinities and their relation to political power is necessary for obtaining a more complete understanding of the mechanisms underpinning diverse inequalities in political representation.

There is of course a lot to draw on from the large literature on women’s political (under)representation. After all, the two phenomena are in many ways two sides of the same coin, intimately connected and directly dependent on each other. But the questions that are posed are different, and the explicit analysis of men in politics also requires a new set of analytical tools. In order to begin to understand the reproduction of male political dominance, the mechanisms that constantly reinforce male dominance as well as the reactive mechanisms that are mobilized to resist challenges and calls for increased diversity and inclusion should be in focus. A large part of the focus should therefore be on pinpointing gendered bias in terms of implicit ideas of entitlement, unwarranted and unnoticed privilege, practices employed to convey power, and different forms of gendered political resources that can be used as a valuable capital to attain political influence. However, the reproduction of male political dominance is also supported by overt and highly conscious practices aimed at maintaining and preserving gendered hierarchies of power. There is a recent tendency in the literature to label all the different constraints that women political actors experience as “resistance” (see, e.g., Krook, 2016; Krook & Restrepo Sanin, 2016). Rather than treading this route and lumping together active opposition with implicit bias, there is a need to increase our understanding of what actually constitutes the perceived resistance. Increased conceptual clarity and analytical stringency regarding what type of gendered bias we study are of the essence. This article contributes with a framework for distinguishing between different forms of rules favoring reproduction of male political dominance and the consequences for the ways in which they can be studied.

The primary focus of the article is on understanding the conditions that enable a persistent reproduction of the descriptive overrepresentation of men. This encompasses mechanisms that work to reinforce male power as well as different forms of resistance to diversity. The article outlines the particularities involved with studying the political representation of men vis-à-vis other groups. It does so by recognizing, first, that most studies of political representation are already about men, but about men who are falsely de-gendered and are not studied “as men.” The problems with this become clear against a backdrop of studies about the underrepresentation of women on the one hand, and studies from the field of critical studies on men and masculinities on the other hand. The analysis elaborates on a new framework for conceptualizing and categorizing the reproduction of male dominance in politics and it discusses methodological approaches suitable for different types of reproduction. It argues that in order to move forward, we need to carefully examine ways to determine what type of reproduction of male dominance we are studying. This will also contribute to a better understanding of the type of discrimination that women face as candidates and representatives.

From Discrimination to Reproduction

While most political science research today is still concerned with men, it usually does not concern itself with the critical study of men or with men as men. Rather, it studies men as the unquestioned norm, as nongendered political beings (Bjarnegård, 2013). Research on women and politics, on the other hand, has taught us that there is no such thing as a political sphere or form of political representation in which gender does not play a significant part. Research on political representation has identified different forms of representation, such as descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation (Pitkin, 1967). The different types of representation have been important for the study of gender and representation, as they have served to pinpoint the different disadvantages that women face. For instance, research has pointed to how women are discriminated against in political parties’ recruitment procedures, resulting in the descriptive parliamentary underrepresentation of women (Bjarnegård & Kenny, 2016; Bjarnegård & Zetterberg, 2016; Caul Kittilson, 2006; Kenny, 2013; Lawless & Fox, 2005, 2010; Murray, 2010; Norris & Lovenduski, 1995). Another line of research has focused on the output side and has pointed to the previously neglected issues that women may bring to the political agenda. The effect of gender quotas has been an important theme here, as quotas provide a rupture in the regular course of politics that makes it possible to study women as newcomers (Bergqvist, Bjarnegård, & Zetterberg, 2016; Celis, 2009; Celis, Childs, Kantola, & Krook, 2008; Chattopadhyay & Duflo, 2004; Childs, 2001; Clayton, Josefsson, & Wang, 2014; Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008; Wängnerud, 2000; Zetterberg, 2009b). Symbolic representation has been studied with regard to how women can become role models, but also with regard to how they are portrayed, and chose to portray themselves, as politicians (Burnet, 2011; Caul Kittilson & Fridkin, 2008; Franceschet, Krook, & Piscopo, 2012; Kahn, 1996; Lawless, 2004; Zetterberg, 2009a).

Research on women and representation has been ground-breaking within the field of political science, and it now constitutes a vibrant subfield. The ideas and findings from this line of research, with its focus on unevenly distributed power and gendered mechanisms, form the basis from which we can start to formulate questions about the political representation of men and what it might mean. Research on women in politics has, explicitly or implicitly, made use of women’s status as relative newcomers to the political sphere as an analytical tool for pinpointing discriminatory practices. Women enter spaces that are not neutral, but where male power is entrenched. The ways in which politics is masculinized are, however, often not visible until there is a contrast or a challenge to the norm that helps us to pinpoint them. Puwar illustrated this by likening women and minorities to “space invaders” in male- dominated institutions, such as Westminster, the art world, and academia (Puwar, 2004). When old actors and institutions are confronted with newcomers, it brings out the contrasts as well as reactions that make it is easier to “nail the bias” (Kenny, 2014). The same is true for electoral reforms, such as gender quotas, that are put in place to achieve change for women in all forms of representation. Their implementation, effects, and the opposition they are met with have provided excellent analytical opportunities for studying subtle as well as overt discrimination in practice (cf. Murray, 2010). The focus in this research, however, has been on the difference of women as they navigate the masculine sphere: it has not been on the male occupants or the characteristics of the sphere as such. In other words, research has, until now, focused more on discrimination against women than on the constant reproduction of male dominance in the different facets of representation. Moving from understanding discrimination against newcomers to understanding reproduction of old power structures also means moving the focus from the experiences of women in politics to the experiences of men in politics (Bjarnegård, 2009). The emerging field on the representation of men is therefore a field that seeks to gender actors and institutions that have been seen as simply “political” or even “neutral” (Bjarnegård & Murray, 2018). In order to understand the reproduction of male dominance in politics, we need to understand the political logic that underpins the inclusion of certain types of people while excluding others. This logic of inclusion and exclusion can be linked to a sort of individual political capital that is more accessible to some individuals than others, and that opens or closes doors in political life. It is important to point out that doors can be opened and closed at many different points and stages of a legislative career.

Masculine norms and practices may close the doors for women at the recruitment stage, they may make it more difficult for women to push open the door to alliances at the policy-making stage, and they may contribute to a stereotypical media depiction of women politicians that, in turn, alienates some voters and closes the doors to certain types of political behavior. This also means, however, that men who conform to certain masculine norms, who feel at home in a masculinized political sphere, who know the rules of the game and have access to a large individual political capital can walk straight through a number of open doors. The emerging field on the representation of men presupposes that this is not just a matter of political skill or knowledge, but that gender and power also play a part, giving (certain) men advantages—even when such advantages are not recognized or even desired (cf. Hanmer, 1990).

Studying the representation of men thus means understanding the reproduction of male political dominance; its origins as well as its significance. This could well cover the entirety of the field of representation, including descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation of men. It means understanding why men continue to stand a greater chance than women to be recruited into politics and it involves understanding how men in politics manage to maintain a persistently disproportionate influence over the political agenda and over policy output. It means unveiling the reinforcement of male power as well as the resistance to newcomers. And, importantly, it implies understanding it from the point of view of the insiders, that is, the powerful men themselves.

A broad field of inquiry is thus opened up by focusing on male overrepresentation. This article marks only the beginning of the endeavor by seeking a better understanding of the causes of the descriptive overrepresentation of men, zooming in on gendered pathways to political power and the conditional privileges facilitating the political recruitment of men. By making men in politics the agents of our inquiry, we can start to unpack the rationale for power-seeking and the strategies used for staying in power. These strategies and rationales may be overt or subtle, and they may be consciously or unconsciously gendered. Seeking power is a maxim of political life, and in itself is a highly rational and understandable goal (Bjarnegård, 2013). Understanding how the goal is attained thus brings us further away from depicting male dominance as the result of a sexist conspiracy against women, and closer to understanding—and unpacking—its power-seeking logic. Male dominance may sometimes be an unintended consequence in a political world where career logic is built up by masculine practices and a masculine view of competence (cf. Murray, 2014). Making it understandable is the first step toward breaking male political privilege.

Recognizing Conditional Privilege

The study of men’s political representation is thus the study of a political privilege rather than political disadvantage (as studies of women in politics tend to be). It cannot be reiterated enough that the two are dependent on each other and should evolve through constant juxtaposing and comparison. However, as a field of gendered study, the study of women in politics has a huge head start, and there are many complementary studies that should be made of male political power before such a comparative endeavor will be fully fruitful.

Gender is, at heart, a relational concept (Carrigan, Connell, & Lee, 1987). Masculinities and femininities are shaped in relation to, and often even in contrast to, each other. Studies of the socialization of boys and men demonstrate how words denoting femininity or homosexuality will be used in derogatory ways as a way of shaming individuals who do not measure up to masculine ideals (Bjarnegård & Melander, 2011; Kimmel & Mahler, 2003). It is therefore difficult to study the change of status on one end of the gender spectrum without studying the other end, as they are entirely dependent on each other. This, however, does not mean that political power is a simple zero-sum game in which we add a few women and remove a few men. Far from it. Although women’s increased status must mean a loss of political status for most men (Carrigan et al., 1987), this is not something that is simply accepted or that happens in a linear fashion. We can see backlashes and new forms of resistance appearing in new places as a reaction to women’s increased power.

The structural dominance of men affects all men to some extent (Carrigan et al., 1987; Hanmer, 1990). This is not to say that all men benefit equally from the structural dominance or that political power is readily accessible to all men. The field of men and masculinities has made use of the concept of hegemonic masculinities, which points to the fact that there are important power relations among men and among different masculine ideals. Very few men can reach the ideal typical hegemonic masculinity, which, in turn, looks different in different contexts. Hegemonic masculinity denotes the type of masculinity that it is desirable to manifest and to resemble in a certain context (Connell, 2005; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Hearn, 2013). It departs from an intersectional analysis that acknowledges the impact of identities other than sex on the status of an individual. Thus, ethnicity, class, and sexuality all interact to form different configurations of masculinities (Kimmel & Messner, 1992). Despite the fact that a number of different factors determine an individual’s chances of becoming a political representative, one particular configuration dominates entirely: being a man from the ethnic majority. For instance, although quotas are designed specifically to increase diversity, they generally do not challenge the parliamentary dominance of majority men (Hughes, 2011).

Majority men in politics have a multitude of methods at hand for reinforcing and legitimizing their claim to power and for resisting change.

Although we have seen a shift in the overarching discourse in many countries, so that it is increasingly common to publicly claim that political gender equality is desirable (Krook, 2016), there are still plenty of places and contexts where it is not associated with any great political risk to publicly voice sexist sentiments about women’s role in society. Outright sexism and violence against women as women are still a reality in most places of the world, and many claim they have even become amplified with the spread of social media. This discourages women from entering the political race, and it also reinforces already existing inequalities by attacking difference as something that is not desirable. Sexist discourses thus smooth the road for male politicians, who do not have to worry about being attacked as naturally unqualified for the job, and they add potholes to an already bumpy road to politics for women.

More subtle than overt sexism are the masculine ideals that politics and society are so imbued with that they are often not even noticed, even less called out as discriminatory. Nevertheless, they work consistently, albeit not always consciously, in favor of the continued dominance of majority men. Gender is always present in social life, as there are norms and codes specifying accepted behavior associated with masculinity and femininity. Norms and codes can change, but the field of feminist institutionalism has also taught us how “sticky” the informal institutions can be (Carrigan et al., 1987; Krook & Mackay, 2011; Lovenduski, 2005). The codes for masculinity have been conflated with codes signaling “the political.” Both men and women often interpret manifestations of masculinity as political competence, whereas femininity in politics is more frequently associated with weakness and political incompetence. Instead, when female politicians are analyzed, more emphasis tends to be put on traditional manifestations of femininity, such as appearance, despite its lack of political relevance (Carlin & Winfrey, 2009). Studies of presidents, such as Sarkozy in France and Putin in Russia, have shown how they seem to equate manifestations of masculinity to the strengthening of their political positions (Achin & Dorlin, 2008; Achin, Dorlin, & Rennes, 2008; Sperling, 2015). When competence and aptitude become intimately connected with a dominant view of masculine performance, both men and women tend to overestimate the qualities that are associated with masculinity, while underestimating qualities that do not conform to the political norm.

Men have a historical advantage in the political sphere. Political institutions were originally constructed by and for men, and today men still occupy more and higher positions of power than women in most societies. This means that as long as influential networks are built among powerful individuals with access to important resources, and as long as these individuals are predominantly male, it will contribute to a reproduction of male dominance in politics (Bjarnegård, 2013; see also Kanter, 1993; Lipman-Blumen, 1976). For instance, in order to be a successful politician at the national level in Thailand, links to local politicians are necessary. Local politics are even more male-dominated than national politics, and the building of networks among male politicians at the national level and local politicians thus perpetuates bonds among powerful men. When someone is recruited to stand for election at the national level, experience in local politics is often an advantage. Although not gendered in themselves, many practices nevertheless propagate existing gender societal inequalities (Bjarnegård, 2013).

Johnson studied informal political networks in Russia. Almost all members of the elite networks are men, and their head patron is President Putin. The inclusion of women in politics is entirely conditioned upon the decisions of the members of the networks, and the women who are recruited into Russian politics are often put in temporary jobs, as stand-ins for men. Comparing the experiences of women and men, Johnson claimed that women “do not come to politics with the social capital of being male, with an easy way of meeting the criteria for being the (masculine) ideal political leader, or with the possibility of homosociality with those who dominate elite networks” (Johnson, 2016, p. 648). Understanding this type of male privilege thus requires contextual knowledge. We need to know the type of political capital that is needed to succeed in politics, and which individuals possess the resources needed to obtain such capital in a given society. Thus we need to unpack the different forms of resources and the political capital they can be used for.

Rules and Their Relation to Political Resources and Political Capital

The “rules of the game” in a particular political setting determine the value of different forms of political resources. In the past decade, feminist institutionalism has been an influential strand of research identifying the rules of the game and determining how they affect gendered stability and change. Feminist institutionalism was born in the interplay between new institutional theory and feminist approaches to institutions: recognizing that the rules of the game that structure political life are both formal and informal and that they often have gendered connotations (Helmke & Levitsky, 2004; Krook & Mackay, 2011). Rules that guide behavior can be recognized by researchers because they are specific to a particular political setting, are recognized by actors (although not always followed), are collective in their effect, are part of a common logic, and are subject to some form of third party enforcement in the sense that there are tangible sanctions connected to not following them. In other words, institutionalized rules and practices can be described and explained to the researcher (Lowndes & Roberts, 2013).

The fact that actors are able to describe the rules and practices that they adhere to does not mean that they are able to unveil how the rules are gendered. For researchers interested in studying gender equality and change, however, it is important to unpack and understand different forms of resistance to greater inclusion and the different origins and motives of resistance. In studies of political representation, women’s experiences of exclusion have often been in focus. The different forms of resistance they have met have often been lumped together instead of distinguished from each other. Yet, in order to understand the mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, and in order to forge strategies for change, we must differentiate between rules that may have excluding consequences, and rules that are excluding in themselves. Gender bias is also often unconscious, and both in terms of conducting research and in working with strategies for change it matters if actors are aware or unaware of the consequences of the logic that guides their behavior.

Lowndes has usefully elaborated different forms of rules that operate in different ways. Certain rules are gendered in themselves; that is, rules about gender. They can be rules that specifically forbid women from holding a certain office, or informal practices making it seem inappropriate for men or women to perform certain tasks. Other rules have gendered consequences. A rule that stipulates that meetings be held in the evenings, for instance, is not a rule about gender in itself. Anyone who does even a rudimentary analysis of structural inequalities existing in the private sphere would, however, realize that this rule disproportionately affects women, who have the main responsibility for care work in most societies. In practice, a rule about meetings being held in the evening will make it difficult for women to attend. Lowndes also specified that rules can be applied by gendered actors, so that it is in the interpretation of a rule that it becomes gendered (Lowndes, 2014).

When we try to understand male overrepresentation and how it may change, we need to recognize that the rules that guide recruitment and legislative career advancement are intimately linked to the resources that are perceived to be needed in politics. Gatekeepers of different kinds—political party leaders, senior party officials, etc.—strive to ensure stable and efficient representation that will enable them to win elections and to reach their political goals. The rules guiding political recruitment and political cooperation more generally are based on a shared understanding of the resources that can be turned into useful political capital. Thus, the gendered rules that guide political recruitment are created by the strategic and regularized behavior of actors who are looking to recruit and closely involve individuals with particular resources that they perceive to be important for political survival and success.

This perspective implies the need to look for the motivation behind the institutionalization of certain types of political priorities, something that brings it close to a feminist rational choice institutionalism (Driscoll & Krook, 2009), and acknowledges that while political behavior is constrained and enabled by the formal and informal rules in place, the rules are also created by actors for a reason, and they can be actively reformed by actors if and when they become concretely aware of the rules and perceive that they have an incentive to change them. In order to conduct research about the rules, and in order to actively work to change them, it is necessary to move beyond identifying the rules and documenting their existence—we must also understand what purpose they serve. As a first step, it is useful to pinpoint the resources that are attractive in a particular political setting. These resources are usually more or less openly discussed in the political sphere and, as such, can be relatively easily identified. The ways in which the resources are gendered and to what extent gender aspects are conscious or not may not be obvious to political actors themselves. Therefore, it is not until a second step that we can consider for whom it is possible to turn certain resources into valuable political capital.

Reproduction of power is important to actors in politics as well as outside of the political sphere. Political power and influence, particularly in terms of political representation, are certainly not equally accessible to everyone. Different individuals possess different types of political resources, the command of which can yield “the accumulation of a political capital that can be used to procure political power” (Verge & Claveria, 2016). Political capital can be used to procure different types of political power, including access to decision-making, capability to make a difference, and perception of oneself as a political actor (Sørensen & Torfing, 2003).

An analytical distinction needs to be made between political resources and political capital. Resources are usable sources of supply or support that can be latent, whereas they are translated into capital when their value is assessed on the political market in an attempt to exchange political capital for political power. Political experience, popularity among voters, support networks in politics or civil society, policy expertise, and educational background may all be important political resources, but they are not necessarily turned into political capital unless the holder of the resources uses them for that purpose.

Many political resources are gendered, but in varying ways. Some political resources are disproportionally found in one group in society. When the resources per se are perceived to be more important than diversity, this perception will favor a certain group. Structural inequalities manifested in an uneven and gendered distribution of resources are thus the problem here, rather than gender itself. If women were in possession of attractive political resources, they would also be able to use them as a political capital. Or, if ideas about what constitutes attractive political capital change, women may possess it. Other political resources are more based on similarity, opportunities to express oneself, and perceived predictability. If and where similarity is valued, it will benefit those already in power. If and when that power balance changes, and new groups are given political power and gatekeeper positions, similarity will be assessed from a wider variety of standpoints, opening up a wider variety of representation. Certain political resources are, however, inherently connected with being a man and are expected to be less sensitive to changes in resource distribution or gatekeeper diversity. For instance, using overtly sexist strategies, delegitimizing women in power because they are women, and objectifying women are all still strategies that are more readily available to men, and where there is much larger room for maneuvering for men than for women. Likewise, the tendency to overrate men’s competence and to depreciate the experience of women is a well-known pattern that again and again benefits men over women, even when they have exactly the same merits (for an example, see Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, & Handelsman, 2012).

These different ways of gendering political resources have important implications for the political capital that men and women can use in the political sphere. Like recruitment and advancement in many other spheres, political careers are based on two principles: first, the dominant group has a large influence over selection of new members, and, second, members should add to the status of the group (cf. Lindgren, 1996). Table 1 draws together the different types of gendered capital and distinguishes on the one hand between homosocial capital and strictly male political capital, and on the other hand between explicit and implicit political capital. Homosocial capital is made up of instrumental and expressive resources favoring different types of similarity, and male capital consists of sexist and patriarchal resources that always favor men. The rows of the table focus on whether the use of the resources is explicit and conscious, or implicit and unconscious. The use of instrumental and sexist resources is more tangible and overt, whereas actors are often unaware of, and do not even reflect on, the value they assign to expressive and patriarchal resources.

Table 1. Types of Gendered Political Resources.

Homosocial Capital

Male Capital

Explicit Use

Instrumental resources

Sexist resources

Implicit Use

Expressive resources

Patriarchal resources

The resources outlined in the table and in detail below can all be translated into rules if and when the perceived necessity of these resources becomes institutionalized, to the extent that they guide recruitment, network-building, and appointment in politics. If and when they can be analyzed as rules, they also provide useful illustrations of different mechanisms for the reproduction of male dominance.

From the point of view of the researcher, study of the different mechanisms requires different methodological approaches. When the mechanisms and strategies are explicit, a different method can be used compared to when they are implicit, and not immediately recognized or acknowledged by either the actors performing them or by the researcher studying them. While instrumental and sexist resources are largely explicit and conscious, expressive and patriarchal resources are more implicit and unconscious.

Instrumental Resources

Rules favoring instrumental resources specify a need to recruit people with certain experiences. Certain political resources are more viable than others. For instance, being well connected to people with power or in strategically important positions is often considered an important asset for reaching political power. Instrumental resources are contextual and contingent on an analysis of what the most valuable assets are in a particular political game. For instance, in certain contexts, a certain level of education may be a prerequisite for being selected for office, whereas in other contexts trade union experience may be more valued. Regardless of the types of resources that are considered valuable in a specific context, we can assess to what extent these resources are evenly distributed across different groups in society, including gender.

The concept of instrumental resources originates in organizational studies of management, but can be applied to the political sphere as well. Networks are important in business and politics alike, partly because of the instrumental resources they can provide: information, legitimacy, and sometimes material assets are communicated and channeled through networks (Ibarra, 1997; Lipman-Blumen, 1976). Research on different parts of the world has demonstrated how informal networks provide men with advantages vis-à-vis their female colleagues or competitors. In Chile, for example, male informal networks provide candidates with campaign financing (Franceschet, 2001), a monetary resource that is clearly instrumental for accessing power and also is a prerequisite for being put in a winnable seat. In countries where a clientelist logic dominates political selection, male candidates seem to have better access to different resources to be distributed in the clientelist exchange (Bjarnegård, 2013; Franceschet & Piscopo, 2014). In Thailand, ties to local politicians are important, both for reasons of legitimacy and to be locally connected and respected. Local politics is highly male-dominated in Thailand, because the role of a village headman, for instance, is often likened to traditional masculine roles, such as that of a police officer keeping law and order, or that of an uncle or father, taking care of his family members. Likewise, links to influential figures and rich businessmen are also considered important assets—but this type of influence is also highly gendered in the Thai context, where most economic resources still lie with men (Bjarnegård, 2013).

Instrumental resources often lie with people who are already influential and in power. The use of instrumental resources thus favors those already in power, regardless of their sex. Political experience of different kinds, including the holding of party office, is one such instrumental resource that increases the chances of being selected or reselected as a candidate (Norris & Lovenduski, 1995) or of being selected for a cabinet post (Escobar-Lemmon & Taylor-Robinson, 2016). Because the majority of politicians in most countries are men, the selection criteria for new candidates are based on their accumulated political experience, and their time in office is seen as legitimizing more time in office (see also Kanter, 1993; Murray, 2014).

Most politicians explicitly strategize about instrumental resources, analyzing their political surroundings, weighing advantages against disadvantages. It is probably also fair to say that most politicians are aware of sometimes favoring experience over diversity, for instance, but consider it a legitimate priority—particularly when they assess it to be necessary for staying in power. Politics is about getting to power and staying in power, and this is a prerequisite for getting your message out and for having influence. It should therefore not come as a surprise that instrumental resources that do not favor diversity are sometimes prioritized. Apart from being conscious, another important characteristic of instrumental resources is that they are not gendered in themselves. As long as resources are distributed according to gendered patterns, however, the use of instrumental resources will favor those already in power.

Instrumental resources reinforce the structures that are already at play in a male-dominated political sphere. They are turned into political capital when there is a perceived need to cooperate with those who have access to resources presently seen as facilitating a political career—often men. This structural bias can be captured by different sorts of network analyses, demonstrating who is building careers together with whom, who is helping whom, and which sectors in society tend to have the closest links, etc. Focus groups and interviews could also be used for these studies, where the main objective is discussing the conscious strategies for selecting suitable candidates or how it is determined what is considered relevant experience for a political career. These strategies will be possible to discuss; indeed, we can assume that they are often something that is discussed at length within political circles. However, the gendered consequences may not be identified by respondents themselves and may require contextual knowledge about structural inequalities.

Expressive Resources

Rules enabling or prioritizing similarity often point to individuals possessing expressive resources. The notion of expressive resources has its origin in organizational studies about homosociality, a concept used for describing the preference for socializing with people of the same sex as ourselves (Ibarra, 1997). This preference originates from a deeper psychological feeling of comfort that arises when someone perceives that they understand another person and can predict how they will behave. Although we base our expectations of other people on a number of complex impressions, biological sex remains one of the dominant sources of expectation, particularly when there is a lack of information at hand. Thus, where homosociality is at play, it is likely to favor people of the same sex, but it is also likely to reproduce similarity more generally.

Kanter (1993) emphasized uncertainty as one of the reasons for using perceived similarity as a proxy for reliability. The need for efficient communication and loyalty creates a desire for conformity. When it comes to assessing similarity, the determination of biological sex in relation to their own identity is also one of the first, and most important, categorizations that people tend to make when they meet another person. This means that while most people feel that they are at ease with, can cooperate with, and can trust people that they perceive to be like themselves, the majority of these trustworthy people will be of the same sex. Others have pointed out that it is not as simple as “men selecting men,” but that different forms of hegemonic masculinities are reproduced in different settings (Bird, 1996; Holgersson, 2012). Particularly in contexts with high levels of insecurity, expressive resources become crucial.

Trust and loyalty are two highly esteemed political qualities that are necessary for the forging of important alliances, for successful negotiations, and for getting access to people in important positions. Most politicians would accept this as a self-evident truth, but few have a clear idea of why they trust certain people but not others. LeBlanc described the connection between ethics, power, and manhood in Japanese politics as an “art of the gut” (LeBlanc, 2010), while Puwar described how women in male-dominated areas feel out of place, to the extent that she likened them to “space invaders” (Puwar, 2004). The exclusion of women is thus often not a calculated exclusion of women per se. Instead, the underrepresentation of women has been described as “a latent function of homosocial processes among men” and as “an active preference for men rather than conscious discrimination of women.” Because the valuing of expressive resources is unreflexive, it is possible to maintain a preference for certain men, while wishing for greater gender equality in general (Holgersson, 2012).

Some studies suggest that women also value expressive resources, and they usually find them in women whom they perceive to be similar to themselves (Bjarnegård, 2013; Lipman-Blumen, 1976). Thus, if and when there are more women and more diversity among party gatekeepers, expressive resources would enable the selection of more women and a more diverse group of candidates. However, men are more likely than women to find expressive and instrumental resources in one and the same person, whereas women often need to work with men in strategic societal positions to collect instrumental resources but with women whom they trust in order to collect expressive resources. While none of the resources are inherently tied to the male gender, but rather to structural inequalities and different types of perceived similarities, a close network built on both of these two resources (i.e., homosocial capital) is likely to be male-dominated (Bjarnegård, 2013).

We identify expressive resources in individuals we perceive to be similar to ourselves, as similarity is perceived to improve understanding, reliability, and predictability. Seeing expressive resources in a person is therefore part of an internal, unconscious, and implicit psychological process. Most people are not aware of how and on what grounds they form preferences for certain types of individuals. Through in-depth interviews we might be able to get at some of the motivations for how and why trust and loyalty matter, and who is perceived to have them and who does not. Knowing the context well, to the extent that sharp scenarios outlining situations where expressive resources could potentially be important, could be used to this end and would certainly be useful in identifying the expressive resources.

Sexist Resources

Turning, then, to the type of resources that are by definition only found among men, and that can only be used by men in order to create political capital—male capital—means beginning with sexist resources. Where sexist resources can be turned into political capital, there may also be informal or even formal rules that regulate the appropriate sex of a politician. There are still places where it is seen as reasonable and right that politics is a man’s world and that women are not fit for public life. Sexist resources are different from instrumental resources because sexist resources explicitly concern women’s role in politics, whereas instrumental resources concern certain experiences or positions that may be unevenly distributed among men and women. Women can possess instrumental resources, if and when they reach important—instrumental—positions. Sexist resources, however, can never benefit women, because they are gender-based and explicitly concern the female sex itself and that it is inappropriate for women to be politically active. Indeed, in countries like Saudi Arabia, it was only in 2015 that women were even legally allowed to run for office. Until then, the formal, public discourse as stated in the law claimed that politics was not a space for women. With this in mind, it is not surprising that this is still an informal norm in many places. It was possible for a Mexican municipal president to tear up ballots marked for a female candidate, while referring to indigenous customs that women could not hold positions of political authority (Krook & Restrepo Sanín, 2016). Even if societal norms have shifted in many places, there are still pockets of resistance to women’s increased representation as well as places with voter support for continued male dominance.

Some sexist resources have remained constant over the years, particularly in conservative areas. As women’s representation has increased, there has also been increased resistance to this change. The introduction of gender quotas in over 100 countries is one of the largest electoral reforms of our time, but it has often met with strong and sometimes overt resistance. While there are many accounts of political parties’ finding loopholes and legal “soft spots” in order to reduce the effectiveness of gender quotas (Baldez, 2007; Bjarnegård & Zetterberg, 2016; Dahlerup, 2006; Hinojosa, 2012; Jones, 2009; Kenny, 2013; Murray, 2010), Josefsson (2016) rightly pointed out that few studies have brought out the actors in order to bring their strategies for resistance and the underlying motivation into the light. Unpacking this resistance and finding out to what extent there are sexist components is important for understanding policy failure of quota reforms.

Emerging research on violence against women in politics has demonstrated the sexist resources that make it possible for someone to gain political capital by virtue of not being a woman. Women are often accused of being bad wives, daughters, and mothers when they campaign politically; similar accusations are rarely, if ever, heard and valued in the campaigns of male candidates (Bjarnegård, 2016; Krook & Sanín, 2016). Two women in Costa Rica who were both parents of young children were told that they should “go home and take care of your baby” (Krook & Sanín, 2016). Women in the Maldives had to campaign together with their husbands, and even then they were victims of character assassinations that claimed that they were having affairs with other men. One male candidate said he had once heard such a rumor about himself, but concluded that it did not do any harm to his campaign. In stark contrast, the possibility of delegitimizing female politicians by spreading rumors of a sexual nature is a resource that is only available to male politicians and usually only to the detriment of female politicians (Bjarnegård, 2016).

Once discriminatory language is used openly, there is no question that it is used consciously and overtly. The fact that psychological violence seems to be used more widely against female candidates while physical violence is used more widely against male candidates (Bardall, 2011) also says something about the sexist resources that are readily available when women constitute the target. In contrast to expressive resources that value the company of men over women, sexist resources are more overt, because they make it possible to delegitimize the presence of women because they are women. When sexist resources are used, the exclusion of women is not simply a consequence; it is the whole purpose of that use.

When sexism is outright and articulated, sexist resources can also be identified, studied, and scrutinized. However, they may not always be articulated in the public spheres and formal institutions where we usually look, nor may they be phrased in the same way when described to a researcher as they are in public debate. Methodologically, it is probably wise to use studies that limit social desirability bias. Surveys can be used to ensure anonymity and to increase the likelihood of honest answers so that questions about men’s and women’s appropriate roles in society can be asked. Discourse analyses of different types of texts and speeches, ranging from formal documents to newspaper coverage of debates, could also be a useful way of understanding what is said about women as women. Because this behavior is explicit, although not always admitted, it should be possible to ask direct questions about it. Our biggest concern should be getting honest answers.

Patriarchal Resources

Patriarchal resources also lie solely with men, but they do not consciously differentiate between men and women. Patriarchal resources instead emanate from the patriarchal society that we live in and that systematically overvalues masculine traits over feminine traits. Rules enabling patriarchal bias are thus concealed in language about merit and competence without recognizing the gendered connotations of the concepts. Most research indicates that no matter how gender-equal the group of selectors is, or how clear the criteria they use are, they tend to be biased toward the masculine.

Political institutions are not just descriptively male-dominated; they are also gender regimes (Carrigan et al., 1987). The fact that men have dominated the political sphere has also meant that the rules of the game are set by men. Lovenduski pointed out that we cannot understand political institutions without acknowledging how they are gendered and how they disadvantage women and favor men (Bjarnegård & Kenny, 2015; Lovenduski, 2005). Simply belonging to a social group that gives you the expected characteristics of a politician will be a benefit, whether it is sought after and acknowledged or not. If, as Phillips (2005) suggested, we assume that men possess no “natural superiority of talent,” we are faced with the realization that recruitment criteria must be flawed, since our legislatures are still so male-dominated.

A number of studies demonstrate that the same characteristics are valued differently for men and for women, and that both men and women are complicit in this overrating of male characteristics. This is certainly not restricted to the political sphere, but it permeates political life. One important study demonstrated how the same CV, but with different names, was valued differently depending on if the CV was thought to belong to “John” or to “Jennifer.” The sex of the evaluator did not matter (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). Similarly, teachers who are believed to be male receive better student ratings (MacNell, Driscoll, & Hunt, 2015), abstracts that are believed to have been written by men are deemed to be of higher scientific quality (Knobloch-Westerwick, Glynn, & Huge, 2013), and musicians who are believed to be men are judged to be better players (Goldin & Rouse, 2000).

Similar patterns persist in the political sphere. Even when there are formal and seemingly ungendered criteria for candidate selection, we need to keep in mind that everyone is a gendered actor working with these criteria (Gains & Lowndes, 2014). Candidates with masculine traits are perceived to be more competent on a broader range of issues than candidates with feminine traits (Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993). A study by Eagly and Karau (2002) argued that there is a perceived incongruity between the female gender role and leadership roles that leads to two forms of prejudice. First, men are perceived more favorably than women regarding potential leadership. Second, the evaluation of the leader role is more favorable when it is performed by a man. Many of these preferences can be linked to stereotypes about men and women in terms of leadership skills, strength, personal traits, and issue preferences (Sanbonmatsu, 2002).

The patriarchal resource, while certainly favoring mainly men, is not consciously turned into capital. Even when masculinity is very obvious, it is usually linked to, and confused with, ideas about how to convey competence. Thus, when President Putin performs according to an ideal of militarized masculinity, it also says something about the political logic in Russia and about what he believes will make people see him as a competent and capable leader (Sperling, 2015). Masculinity is taken for granted, skipped over, and a natural advantage, but one that men can choose to enhance and to emphasize—to the extent that selectors often think they are unaffected by gender, but yet prove to be operating according to a male bias. This patriarchal resource thus belongs to a specifically male capital, although it is unconscious.

Patriarchal resources are similar to expressive resources in that they are implicit and unconscious. Rather than being conflated with arguments about trust and predictability, however, they often concern merit and competence. A person possessing patriarchal resources will be subject to inflation of certain characteristics and experiences. In certain circumstances, being male boosts already existing assets, while being female reduces them. As research has demonstrated, the value of patriarchal resources can often be captured most convincingly through experiments where the male is constantly valued higher than the female even when they are, in all other ways, equal.


By shifting the focus from the factors constraining women’s political representation to the factors facilitating men’s political representation, a more complete picture of the gendered nature of the political world is achieved. This shift is important and needed, but not necessarily straightforward. New conceptualizations are needed in order to capture and to unpack the different gender aspects of power-seeking. Male overrepresentation is not sustained by one single factor, but by a multitude of motivations, conscious and unconscious, that underpin the constant reproduction of male power. This article proposes a way to disentangle the different motivations from each other by focusing on the types of resources that can be turned into political capital in different contexts. It proposes and elaborates on two main types of political capital that under certain circumstances may reinforce male dominance and resist challenges to it: homosocial capital, consisting of instrumental and expressive resources favoring those who are already in power and those who are perceived to be similar to those in power, and male capital, consisting of sexist and patriarchal resources that always favor men. Empirically, they are often related, overlapping, or interacting. For instance, gatekeepers may devise seemingly instrumental selection criteria but sexist or patriarchal norms may affect how and why such criteria are formulated. The framework can function as a set of different hypotheses about why male power prevails, and it can also help to disentangle different potential explanations. There is, however, value to keeping them analytically distinct in the way of an ideal type: the motivations underlying the value of different forms of capital are gendered in different ways and they thus require different methodological approaches and call for different strategies for change. The main importance of the distinction between homosocial capital and male capital is that it highlights the fact that, although both are gendered, male capital is reserved only for men. Homosocial capital, however, can—under certain circumstances—benefit women. There is therefore a possibility to work strategically with shifting homosocial capital so that women possess it. For instance, if it is easier to increase the share of women in a sphere from which politicians or political experts are often recruited, this would give women an instrumental resource that could be valuable. Likewise, if perceptions about which instrumental resources that are needed can change, this can also create an opening for women. By getting more women in powerful positions, whether incrementally or through a “fast track,” such as quotas (cf. Dahlerup & Freidenvall, 2005), women are given an expressive resource. Male capital, on the other hand, will never favor women and will only serve to reproduce male dominance. If the goal is to increase diversity in politics, the aim must simply be to reduce the value of male capital in politics.

The political study of male overrepresentation can certainly go beyond the focus on descriptive representation. A deeper elaboration of the consequences of male dominance (i.e., the substantive representation of men) in terms of policy output is an important next step. Although we should not expect a straightforward relationship between the representation of a certain sex and certain types of policies, it would be useful to ask what difference men in politics actually make—particularly as this question has often been raised regarding the contributions of women (see, e.g., Bjarnegård & Melander, 2013, 2017).

Although this article focuses solely on political capital and resources, it also notes that there are many similarities between political careers and advancement in other sectors. It is likely that the framework presented here could be a useful analytical tool for understanding persistent overrepresentation in a variety of spheres. It would be fruitful for future research to elaborate on the scope conditions of this framework and to investigate to what extent the same logic and resources are applicable in other fields.

The author would like to thank members of the Feminism and Institutionalism International Network as well as her students for intellectually stimulating discussions and thought-provoking questions that motivated the writing of this article. In particular, the author would like to thank Joakim Johansson, Johanna Rickne, Line Säll and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts.


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