Gender, Institutions and Political Recruitment: A Research Agenda

Why do men still dominate in politics? Two new books cast light on this puzzle, putting the focus on the all-important ‘secret garden’ of candidate selection and recruitment. Authors Elin Bjarnegård and Meryl Kenny introduce their books and outline a research agenda for work on gender, institutions and political recruitment.

Elin Bjarnegård (Uppsala) & Meryl Kenny (UNSW)

There are few political phenomena as universal as the political under-representation of women. While women are more than half of the world’s population, currently only 20.8 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide are women.

What explains this continuing democratic deficit? Who gets selected for political office, and why? Why are men considered suitable candidates more often than women? What are the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’ for recruiting and nominating candidates? Why do gender equality reforms – such as gender quotas – succeed in some contexts but not others? And under what conditions can women achieve concrete gains in politics?

Most explanations of women’s political under-representation focus on the political system, highlighting barriers to women’s political participation at the institutional, political party, or individual level. One of the crucial factors that research has pointed to time and time again is the electoral system, with many studies confirming that the percentage of women elected tends to be higher in countries with proportional representation (PR) systems rather than single-member district plurality systems (such as the first past the post system used for Westminster elections). Yet, while there has been a strong and consistent association between PR electoral systems and higher levels of women’s representation, the evidence also suggests that a more proportional electoral system is not a sufficient condition in itself to ensure or explain increases in women’s political presence. While the electoral systems of most countries have remained constant, the percentage of women in national office has risen overall[1]. Moreover, while most countries with high levels of women’s numerical representation have PR systems, not all countries with PR have high levels of women in political office[2].

Election systems matter because they provide political parties with incentives that have an impact on who they perceived to be a suitable candidate. But the political parties, not the electoral system, are responsible for the actual recruitment and selection of candidates. In fact, political parties monopolize candidate selection in most countries of the world and thus constitute the key gatekeepers to political office[3]. In other words, they are the main vehicles for delivering women’s numerical presence in parliaments and governments. Political parties do not only control which candidates are recruited and selected for political office, they are also the central actors involved in adopting candidate selection reforms, such as gender quotas, and provide the main route through which these measures are implemented. Thus, in order to explain women’s chronic minority status in politics, we need to understand how parties encourage or inhibit women’s access to political office.

Yet, while the important role of political parties in shaping patterns of women’s representation is widely recognized, there have been surprisingly few systematic studies into the ‘shadowy pathways’ prior to election. Both of our new books take an in-depth look at this under-researched area, contributing to a wider research agenda looking at the relationship between gender, institutions and political recruitment.

Gender, Informal Institutions and Political Recruitment: Explaining Male Dominance in Parliamentary Representation, by Elin Bjarnegård, makes men in politics the subjects of a gendered analysis. How do men manage to hold on to positions of power despite societal trends in the opposite direction? And why do men seek to cooperate mainly with other men? The book studies how male networks are maintained and expanded and seeks to improve our understanding of the rationale underlying male dominance in politics. The findings build on results from both statistical analyses of parliamentary composition worldwide and extensive fieldwork in Thailand. A new concept, homosocial capital, is coined and developed to help us understand the persistence of male political dominance.

Gender and Political Recruitment: Theorizing Institutional Change, by Meryl Kenny, explores the gendered dynamics of institutional innovation, continuity and change in the candidate selection process. Drawing on the insights of feminist and new institutional theory, it extends the conventional ‘supply and demand’ model of political recruitment through an original empirical case study of candidate selection in post-devolution Scotland. Combining macro- and micro-level data, it highlights the complex and gendered dynamics of institutional design, continuity and change in the political recruitment process and illustrates the difficulties of reforming recruitment in the face of powerful institutional and gendered legacies.

Together, these books take research on gender and political recruitment forward in two key ways. First, they move beyond the formal features of the political and party system to look at the role of informal rules and practices in shaping political behavior and outcomes. While studies of political parties have focused largely on formal regulations and official party rules, our research demonstrates that formal rules may have little bearing on party practice. Informal party practices or conventions – such as patronage or clientelism – may undermine formal party rules, working to blunt the reformist potential of equality measures such as gender quotas. And even if formal selection practices and criteria are ‘on the books’, they are not necessarily followed. Thus, it is important to investigate the specific combination of formal and informal rules that impact upon women’s political participation; how this changes over time; and the extent to which these rules reinforce one another or exist in tension.

For example, in the run-up to the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, new formal rules – including gender quotas – were introduced in the Labour Party in order to open up the political recruitment process, reforms that were intended to break the hold of unrepresentative constituency activists (who were largely male) over candidate selection. Post-1999, however, there are visible signs that equal political representation has slipped down the party’s agenda. While, formally, many of the institutional reforms of 1999 are still in place, these rules do not always appear to be actively maintained or enforced. In the absence of the active maintenance of existing rules, party participants in the selection process have been left with considerable leeway to circumvent and subvert selection reforms such as gender quotas. In doing so, they appear to have fallen back on familiar formulas, resurrecting informal and traditional conventions around ‘localness’ – including masculinist party practices of local patronage and the privileging of ‘favorite sons’ – in order to counteract women’s increased access and presence in formal decision-making arenas.

Second, while past research has focused largely on women in party politics, our books look at both men and women and the gendered nature of parties. We therefore move beyond the traditional focus on numbers (how political positions are distributed) and focus instead on the internal party dynamic, a key arena in which the gendered politics of distribution play out and where these crucial power-struggles take place. For every female candidate that wants to get in, another, often male, candidate has to go. The gendered power-struggle is therefore very real, and it is only rational to try to devise strategies in order to stay in power.  Investigating the institutional innovation on the part of both female and male actors and the dynamics that these power-struggles set into motion is necessary in order to fully comprehend the complex decisions that parties are faced with.

In Thailand, for example, despite the fact that women have reached a relatively high social standing in many areas, politics still remains a male bastion. To understand why, we have to look more closely at the political actors’ strategies for coping with an ever-changing political environment. In order to ensure the survival of their own political careers, Thai politicians have tended to invest in their own personal (and informal) clientelist networks, rather than in formal political institutions that are seen as unreliable and weak.  A strong clientelist network has become close to a prerequisite for becoming a candidate in Thailand. These networks are highly gendered, as male politicians feel that they maximize their chances of electoral success if they recruit people who are in strategic positions with access to resources to be distributed, who they can also trust and perceive to be like themselves.  For male politicians, this implies selecting other men. For Thai women, these networks are simply not a valid currency with which to attain political power.  Women do not have access to the all-important ‘homosocial capital’ they need to build clientelist networks, make political careers and gain electoral power.

Taken together, these two books demonstrate that although they focus on two very different settings – Thailand and Scotland – gendered informal practices within political party organizations are critically important for understanding the continuity of male political dominance and female under-representation.  Further research in this area is needed – including careful case-by-case analysis of the political recruitment process as well as comparative research across and within countries. There is a general lack of comparative data at the party level, and this lack is even more pronounced when it comes to non-western countries. One of the challenges for the field of political recruitment is therefore to find ways and methods for investigating and comparing different types of political party practices. Such studies are important not only for academic research, but for party and parliamentary practice, providing insights into practical strategies for increasing women’s representation and for removing wider barriers to their political participation. This is essential not only on the grounds of justice, but also to ensure legitimacy, representativeness and quality in our democratic institutions.

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The authors at the Palgrave Gender and Politics Series book launch, 3rd European Conference on Politics & Gender, Barcelona, Spain, March 2013.


[1] Kittilson, M.C. (2006) Challenging Parties, Changing Parliaments: Women and Elected Office in Contemporary Western Europe. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

[2] Krook, M.L. (2010) ‘Women’s Representation in Parliament: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis’, Political Studies, 58 (5), 886-908.

[3] Norris, P. and J. Lovenduski (1995) Political Recruitment: Gender, Race and Class in the British Parliament. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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About genderpol

The blog of the Gender Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh - and friends
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One Response to Gender, Institutions and Political Recruitment: A Research Agenda

  1. Melissa Haussman says:

    Excellent, well done you two! Yes, it’s all the difficult-to-quantify-and-prove “informal” practices that seem to perpetuate inequality….two important books to get!

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