Politics and Gender
KeywordsGender Identity Gender Group Policy Area Hate Crime Gender Nonconformity
Gender: the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.
Introduction: What Is Gender?
What is gender and what does it have to do with politics? Definitions of gender and gender identity have changed drastically over time and continue to be disputed. Traditional conceptualizations define gender as “the state of being male or female.” More nuanced definitions suggest that gender is more accurately “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” (Merriam-Webster). There is now widespread consensus that gender, like race, is a social construct – meaning that it is an idea that was created through cultural and societal practices, rather than a reality constructed by nature. Gender is distinct from sex, the latter of which refers to one’s biological anatomy, such as chromosomes, gonads, reproductive organs, and/or genitalia. One’s gender may correspond with one’s biological sex (i.e., cisgender) or not (i.e., transgender).
In recent years, there has been a notable societal effort to acknowledge the fluidity of gender and move beyond traditional notions of gender, gender identity, and gender roles. As an example, in 2014, the massive social media company, Facebook, generated an option for users to customize the way they identify their gender, which included expanding their list of gender identities to include over 58 categories and allowing users to select between different gender pronouns, not provide a gender, or keep their gender private. The presence of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, intersex, asexual, where trans* refers to multiple identities, such as transsexual, transgender, transvestite, etc.) people in the media and pop culture is also increasing, and gender nonconformity is becoming more accepted among the mass public – though it is still considered unorthodox or taboo by many people. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 55% of Americans support same-sex marriage, with the bulk of this support coming from the Millennial generation or those born after 1980 (70% of whom are in favor) and people unaffiliated with any religion (82% of whom are in favor) (Pew Research Center 2015).
The Politics of Gender Identity
What does all of this have to do with politics? While gender is indeed a social construct, it is also a political one. Governments decide whether to acknowledge certain gender identities, whether to provide rights and protections to various gender groups, or whether to suppress and penalize them. Governments generate and implement policies that affect all gender groups, with some groups benefitting (or suffering) from these policies more than others. While individuals may self-identify their gender(s), governments regulate the extent to which individuals can express and receive official recognition of their gender identity. For example, the United States provides only two gender options for official government documents and proceedings: male or female. Meanwhile, at least seven countries, including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia, have made efforts to expand official gender options to include a third category, most commonly denoted as “other,” “indeterminate,” or “X” gender. These efforts have involved supreme court rulings or national legislation stipulating the addition of a third gender option to certain government records, such as census forms, passports, identification cards, voter registration documents, or birth certificates.
While these efforts signify an advancement for gender minorities and are an important step toward achieving official legal status, there are still shortcomings. Administrative burdens, such as having to request special forms or submit additional paperwork, the absence of additional official gender categories, the failure to separate biological sex from gender, and lack of the option for respondents to write in their self-identified gender, mean that a significant portion of gender minorities will face barriers in their pursuit to attain official recognition of their genders. The vast majority of countries in the world are “genderist,” meaning that they acknowledge the existence of only two genders (gender binarism) and assume that the characteristics of one’s gender are inherently linked with their biological sex. In genderist institutions, sex and gender are divided into two distinct and opposing categories: masculine, associated with males, men, boys, and masculinity, and feminine, associated with females, women, girls, and femininity. In these countries, individuals who do not identify as entirely male/man or entirely female/woman, such as intersex or trans* individuals, are forced to falsely identify their sex and/or gender in order to receive legal documents and access to government services.
Gender Rights, Protections, and Prohibitions
In addition to regulating which gender identities receive official legal recognition, governments also determine which rights and protections, if any, will be provided to different gender groups. Many countries have passed laws that protect against sex- or gender-based discrimination in the workplace and protections against hate crimes, though not all of these laws include provisions for gender identity and/or sexual orientation. As of 2015, 21 countries have passed legislation to legalize same-sex marriages, and one country (Mexico) allows same-sex marriages in certain jurisdictions. A number of other countries allow same-sex civil partnerships, registered partnerships, or civil unions, though these partnerships are often denied the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexual marriages. Governments, especially less democratic and nondemocratic ones, are also responsible for generating laws that perpetuate – and even exacerbate – the oppression of women and other gender minorities. Formal legal barriers exist in advanced industrial democracies as well. Same-sex marriage is illegal in most countries, including those considered among the most democratic in the world. In five countries – Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen – engaging in same-sex sexual activity is legally punishable by death, and the death penalty is widely implemented in parts of Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia, despite these countries lacking official laws that stipulate the death penalty for same-sex acts (Carroll and Itaborahy 2015).
Discriminatory laws against women persist in many countries as well, despite the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty designed to protect the rights of women, by 189 countries around the globe. An Equality Now report published in 2015 outlines four areas in which women face discriminatory laws: marital status (marriage, divorce, polygamy, wife obedience), personal status (citizenship, weight of court testimony, travel, prostitution), economic status (inheritance, property, employment), and violence against women (rape, domestic violence, “honor” killings) (Equality Now 2015). Both Egypt and Syria have codified laws that condone “honor” killings – the murder of a woman for engaging in an “illegitimate” sexual act, be it forced or consensual – which protect murderers from being prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Laws in other countries, including the Bahamas, India, Lebanon, Malta, Palestine, Singapore, and Nigeria, protect perpetrators of rape and domestic violence.
Additional punitive laws against women, such as travel constraints, employment limitations, wife obedience laws, forced habitation, divorce restrictions, restrictions on the confer of citizenship to children, forced dress requirements, limitations on property ownership and inheritance, and differential weight of court testimony, are widely prevalent throughout much of the Middle East and Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America. Some notable developed democracies were highlighted by the Equality Now report as well. In Japan, women cannot remarry unless 6 months have passed since the dissolution of her previous marriage. The United Kingdom’s Equality Act of 2010 allows for discrimination against women in the armed forces. In the United States, citizenship for persons born out of wedlock is tied to the nationality of their biological father (section 309 of the Immigration and Nationality Act). In addition, over 30 US states allow perpetrators of rape to sue their victims for visitation and custody rights for children conceived as a result of forcible insemination (Prewitt 2010). Laws such as these and those that discriminate against LGBTQIA people exacerbate the inequalities that exist between heterosexual, cisgender men and all other gender groups. Moreover, these inequalities are often greater for people of color and those with the worst economic outcomes in life.
Gendered Politics: Access, Leadership, and Behavior
Gender can be present in all parts of governance, including but not limited to: the elected and nonelected decision-makers who make up governing bodies, the creation and implementation of policy, and the institutions in which policy is developed. Acker (1992: 567) coined the term “gendered institutions” to refer to the presence of gender in “the processes, practices, images and ideologies, and distributions of power in the various sectors of social life.” Acker suggests that institutions (e.g., the law, politics, religion, the economy) in many societies are structured along gendered lines. Many important institutions were developed by men, were historically and are currently dominated by men, and are symbolically interpreted as men’s domains. These institutions are gendered by nature; however, there is some evidence that the gendered nature of institutions can change once more women (and presumably more LGBTQIA people) are integrated into the institution (Funk and Taylor-Robinson 2014).
Stivers (2002) argues that the very image of leadership is gendered. The traits commonly associated with a leader are tied to masculinity and masculine norms of behavior, such as conflict, competition, aggression, strength, and bravery. If leaders – including men, women, and LGBTQIA people – choose to emphasize leadership traits that diverge from these stereotypically masculine traits, they risk being viewed “as indecisive, soft, and not assertive enough” (Stivers 2002: 72) and may be seen as essentially unfit to be a leader. A large body of literature has researched the gendered patterns of leadership styles and behavior, with much of this literature arguing that women’s leadership styles are more democratic, cooperative, inclusive, and participatory. However, there is mixed evidence to support the theory that women’s leadership styles and behaviors are significantly different than those of their men counterparts (Eagly and Johnson 1990).
Pathways to power and access to equal treatment and participation in political institutions are fundamentally gendered in most societies as well. Women often have different pathways to power than do men. In democratic countries, factors such as the type of electoral system, structure of the political party system, candidate selection procedures, and incumbency affect levels of women’s representation in political institutions. Many countries around the world have taken to unconventional means to overcome these barriers and increase the representation of women in politics through the implementation of gender quotas that force political parties to include a certain percentage of women on their lists of candidates. There is strong evidence that gender quotas are effective in increasing women’s representation when enforcement mechanisms and placement mandates exist and that gender quotas are most effective in closed-list proportional representation systems (Tripp and Kang 2008).
Once women attain access to power, there are gendered patterns to the types of positions they receive. For example, in legislatures women are more likely to be assigned to women’s issues and social issues committees and generally kept off power committees like economics or foreign affairs (Heath et al. 2005). Additionally, women cabinet ministers are more likely to be given less prestigious and more feminine cabinet portfolios (Krook and O’Brien 2012). Kanter’s (1977) work on sex ratios suggests that women are more likely to be equal participants if the gender composition of a group is less skewed and more balanced. This seminal study spawned a huge body of research on “critical mass” theory – the idea that women must obtain a “critical” mass, usually hypothesized to be above 30–40%, before women can act as equal participants. However, few studies have found empirical support for critical mass theory, and more recent research suggests that other factors, such as critical acts or critical actors, are more important for guaranteeing women’s equal participation in politics. There is also evidence that women are more likely to come to power under precarious circumstances, such as in times of economic crisis, after a corruption scandal, or following a major party failure, and are more likely to run in elections where they have a small chance of winning (Ryan et al. 2010). This phenomenon has been termed the “glass cliff” by the literature, and women candidates who are recruited to run for precarious positions are often called “sacrificial lambs.”
Little to no research has been conducted on gendered pathways to power for LGBTQIA people due to at least three factors: (1) the failure of governments to collect reliable data on LGBTQIA political candidates, (2) hesitation of (would-be) political leaders to openly identify as anything other than a (cisgender, heterosexual) man or woman for fear of negative political repercussions, and (3) the underrepresentation of LGBTQIA people in politics. As the representation of LGBTQIA people increases, research on gendered pathways to power, leadership styles and behaviors, and political assignments should expand to incorporate these other gender groups and determine whether they, like women, face obstacles to equal access, treatment, and participation in politics due to their gender.
Gendered Policy: Does Representation Matter?
One of the most obvious ways in which politics and gender are intertwined is in the creation of policies that are overtly gendered. Clearly, whether women and LGBTQIA people are treated with equality before the law is a fundamental example of gendered policy. However, policies with gendered implications exist in numerous areas, some of which may seem to be entirely gender neutral. What is considered a women’s issue or LGBTQIA issue varies across time and space, so it is difficult to produce a comprehensive list of gendered policy issues. Nevertheless, there are a number of definitions that are able to identify gendered policy issues across contexts. In regard to women’s issues, the most minimalist definitions include only issues of women’s rights and equality. Broader definitions incorporate issues of children, families, and sometimes welfare, since policies in these areas disproportionately affect women in many societies. The broadest definitions also include traditionally feminine policy areas, such as education, healthcare, and social services, that correspond to women’s traditional roles in society as caregivers and homemakers. However, these broad-based definitions are becoming increasingly obsolete as more men become involved in these traditionally “feminine” policy areas.
Further complicating these definitions of women’s issues is the fact that women are an extremely heterogeneous group. Beckwith (2014) distinguishes between women’s interests, issues, and preferences as a way to acknowledge that women as a class may share similar interests in various policy issues; however, their preferences about how to address certain issues may differ greatly. For example, all women likely share an interest in protecting their health and well-being. Policy issues related to this interest include healthcare, domestic violence, abortion, and reproductive rights. However, women’s preferences about how to address each of these issues vary greatly. Feminist women prefer that abortion is legal in all circumstances, while many religious women prefer that abortion is legal only under certain circumstances (e.g., in cases of rape or when the pregnancy is a threat to the woman’s life) or illegal under all circumstances. Both sets of women have a legitimate interest in this policy area and reasons for supporting their preferences, yet they have vastly different ideas about how to best solve the issue. Women constitute roughly half of the world’s population, so the idea that women would have congruent preferences on all women’s issues is overly simplistic and ill-founded.
Keiser et al. (2002), in their study of the effects of gender representation in the bureaucracy, offer a useful set of criteria for classifying policy areas as gendered. The authors suggest that policy areas can become gendered if (1) the policy directly benefits women as a class, (2) the gender of the bureaucrat changes the relationship between the client and bureaucrat, or (3) the political process defines the issue as a women’s issue. In this conceptualization, “elected representative” could easily be substituted for “bureaucrat.” In addition, this conceptualization is useful in that it can easily be extended to incorporate all LGBTQIA people. Scholars often forget that the study of gender is not just the study of women, so they neglect to include other gender groups in their studies of gendered policy areas. This critical oversight means that policy areas that affect LGBTQIA people but might not affect (cisgender, heterosexual) women are not being given as much scholarly attention. The LGBTQIA community is interested in issues that also affect cisgender, heterosexual women, such as protections against discrimination and violence, guarantees of equal treatment and compensation in the workforce, provision of equal rights, and access to personalized and quality healthcare. However, they also face unique issues such as whether they can use public facilities (e.g., bathrooms, locker rooms) of their choosing, whether they are provided with adequate services in situations of violence and abuse (e.g., if shelters exist for battered women but not for battered trans* people), and whether they can openly identify as LGBTQIA in military service and public service without being discriminated against.
Policy areas may be gendered even when they appear to be gender neutral or can become gendered through a political event or changes in the policy process. For example, the law regarding alcohol consumption in the United States stipulates that anyone, regardless of gender, above the age of 21 can legally consume alcohol. However, a recent policy recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made alcohol consumption a gendered policy area by recommending that women “stop drinking alcohol if they are trying to get pregnant or could get pregnant” (CDC 2016). This recommendation targeted not only women who are or are trying to become pregnant but also women who could hypothetically get pregnant – no matter their actual probability of becoming pregnant or desires to continue with or terminate a pregnancy if one were to develop. Comparably, increased spread of the Zika virus in 2016, coupled with the discovery of the connection between Zika and microcephaly in newborns, has prompted several nations, including Brazil, Jamaica, El Salvador, Colombia, and Ecuador, to advise women to delay getting pregnant – up to 2 years in El Salvador – until the virus is better understood. These recommendations are highly gendered and disproportionately burdensome for women who lack access to adequate education, contraceptives, and legal means to abortion. Further, these recommendations do not advise men, who can sexually transmit the disease and impregnate women, to stop having sex or help prevent pregnancies in Zika-affected regions. Additional supposedly gender-neutral policies can have significant implications for various gender groups. Some gender scholars might go so far as to argue that gender is present in all policy areas since gender is such a salient societal division and political identity.
Can the representation of women and gender minorities help to improve gendered politics and policies? In her seminal work The Concept of Representation, Pitkin (1967) identifies three types of representation: descriptive, substantive, and symbolic. Descriptive representation involves the mere presence of a certain group in politics. Substantive representation involves the representative acting on behalf of or in the interests of the represented group. Symbolic representation is the response that the represented have to the representative of their group. Research suggests that the descriptive representation of women and LGBTQIA people in political offices and public administration will likely increase the substantive and symbolic representation of the groups they represent. A huge body of research has found that women elected officials are likely to view women as an important constituency, consider themselves representatives of women, and act on behalf of women’s substantive interests. There is also a growing literature on representative bureaucracy that finds that gender representation in public administration leads to the substantive representation of women – even in contexts where representation would not be expected (e.g., Keiser et al. 2002). There is no reason why the link between descriptive representation and substantive representation would not exist for LGBTQIA people as well; however, this link has yet to be established empirically due to a lack of sufficient research in this area, the unavailability of reliable data, and the underrepresentation of openly LGBTQIA people in politics and public administration.
Despite widespread evidence that increasing women’s representation in politics and the bureaucracy results in positive outcomes for women, women continue to be underrepresented in all aspects of political life. In 2015, UN Women reported that women’s representation in national legislatures has doubled over the course of 20 years (from 1995 to 2015). However, this increase resulted in a meager average 22% of national legislators identifying as women. Rwanda is the best performer by far in regards to women’s legislative representation, with women occupying 63.8% of seats in the lower house as of 2015. The representation of women in most other countries is abysmal, with women accounting for less than 10% of lower legislative houses in at least 37 states, some countries lacking women political representatives entirely, only 21 countries with women as heads of state or heads of government, and women composing only 17% of government ministers worldwide. These statistics suggest that, despite the gains that have been made, progress for women’s representation around the world has been slow and does not seem to be improving much – barring the countries that adopt gender quota laws and reserve seats for women representatives. These extremely low levels of diversity in gender representation signal the need for increased representation of women and other gender minorities in many countries around the world.
Gender is present in nearly all – if not all – aspects of politics. Gender is political and politics is gendered. Governments play a role in defining the confines of gender identity – at least from a legal perspective – and determine which rights, protections, or limitations will be imposed on various gender groups. Images of political leaders and the ways leaders are expected to behave are gendered. Access to political power, the division of political assignments and responsibilities, and participation in political institutions are gendered as well. The creation and implementation of public policy certainly have gendered implications. Despite these facts, the overwhelming majority of studies in political science, public administration, and public policy ignore the prevalence of gender throughout almost all political matters and thus fail to capture the importance of gender in studies of political processes and outcomes. The result is that much of what is known about politics and public administration is limited and may not generalize beyond the men who have traditionally dominated these institutions.
Cisgender, heterosexual, elite, white men continue to dominate politics and hold a monopoly on political power, as they have done for hundreds of years in many societies. Increasing gender representation throughout the world is a much-needed step toward achieving better governing systems and political outcomes. Women and LGBTQIA people (in addition to people of color) are largely absent from politics throughout the world, despite the robust finding that increasing the descriptive representation of a group produces improvements in that group’s substantive representation. Research on gender and politics continues to grow and improve, but there are still many more questions that need to be answered and much more to be learned. Going forward, researchers and political representatives need to decide whether the bimodal categories for gender (man and woman) are still useful categorizations and whether they should continue to be used. Decisions also need to be made about the extent to which gender should be conceptualized and measured separately from biological sex. In addition, the intersection of various identities (e.g., gender, race, etc.), the nuances of gender identity, and the fluidity of gender (and other) identities should be taken into consideration in future studies and by political decision-makers and representatives.
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