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Op-ed: Diversity in politics can lead to gains

January 11, 2019 — 

The following is an op-ed written by Royce Koop, associate professor and head of the political studies department. It was originally published the Winnipeg Free Press on Jan. 11, 2019. 


The U.S. midterm elections held in November resulted in President Donald Trump’s Republicans holding — indeed, strengthening their grip on — the U.S. Senate. The Republicans, however, lost their majority in the House of Representatives to the Democrats. This will have severe repercussions for U.S. politics over the next two years, including the potential for an impeachment vote again Trump.

As members were sworn in last week, analysts also took note of the increased diversity of the new Congress. There were all sorts of firsts included among the ranks of the new representatives.

The midterms, for example, saw the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar arrived in the U.S. 20 years ago as a refugee from Somalia and will therefore also be the first Somali-American member of the House. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, also Muslim, is the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. Tlaib quickly stirred controversy by promising a roomful of supporters that she and her colleagues would “go in and impeach the m*****f****r,” speaking (of course) of Trump.

There were other firsts. The midterms saw the election of the first two Native American women to Congress. And New Mexico’s Kyrsten Sinema was sworn in as the first openly bisexual senator.

The midterms also saw a further step toward gender equity in the U.S., as the percentage of female members of Congress jumped to 24 per cent from 19 per cent. The presence of women in the U.S. Congress is clearly related to party. Following the midterms, a stunning 87 per cent of female members of the House of Representatives are Democrats, whereas only 13 per cent are Republicans.

The fact that roughly a quarter of all members of the U.S. Congress are women will gall some, given that women are about half the population as a whole.

But the Congress is, in fact, on par with the representation of women throughout the democratic world. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which tracks the proportion of women elected, reports that, as of this writing, 24 per cent of all members in elected legislatures throughout the world are women. Europe’s Nordic nations have the highest overall proportion of women in their legislatures. Pacific-region states, in contrast, have the lowest.

Canada’s House of Commons, incidentally, elected 91 women in the 2015 election, 27 per cent of all MPs. That’s enough for Canada to score the 59th rank in the world in terms of the proportion of women elected, which is perhaps quite a bit lower than many Canadians would have thought.

But this raises the question: does increased diversity matter for what governments actually do? Do governments tend to act differently when they are staffed by more diverse sets of representatives?

There is increasing evidence that the answer is “yes.” This is particularly true with respect to the proportion of women elected.

In part, this is because women bring different political priorities to elected office than men. This is particularly true with respect to what are thought of as “women’s issues,” such as abortion, health and child care. However, women are also more likely than men to prioritize other issues such as families, education, substance abuse and the environment.

This suggests that electing more women to legislatures will lead to those legislatures pursuing different policy goals. And academic studies demonstrate this to be true. In a wide range of settings, electing more women tends to lead to greater funding for social welfare programs. More women in the legislature also leads to a higher number of bills related to women’s concerns being both introduced and passed.

Female elected officials also tend to do their jobs differently than men. Academic studies show that female representatives tend to invest greater effort than men into consulting with their constituents. They consult more often and try to maintain connections with more local groups and communities. Women are also more likely than men to both co-operate and collaborate with other elected officials.

Electing more women may bring about both policy changes and a change in the style of politics. But it is also important to keep in mind that individual legislators cannot always make a difference. Instead, it is important that both women and members of other groups occupy powerful positions, particularly executive positions, in order to ensure changes can be brought about.

So, to return to the U.S. situation, those encouraged by the election of a record number of women and other firsts in the U.S. Congress will also be buoyed by the election of Democrat Nancy Pelosi to the position of Speaker of the House.


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