All Male Panels Erode Citizens’ Perceptions of Democratic Legitimacy

By Amanda Clayton, Diana Z. O’Brien, and Jennifer M. Piscopo

All-male panels increasingly face public pushback. Though once ubiquitous, male-only groups are encountering greater scrutiny at conferences, in workplaces, and especially in politics. In the United States, for example, a photo showing a male-only meeting of politicians discussing whether health insurance plans should be required to include maternity services provoked outrage. Irish citizens recently expressed indignation at an all-male group of city and county councilors advocating for a “no” vote in the country’s referendum to decriminalize abortion.

That all-male panels confront scorn, especially when their topic addresses matters connected to women’s experiences, suggests that women’s presence can affect how citizens view policy decisions and the institutions and processes that make them. What does women’s presence in political decision-making bodies signal to citizens? Do citizens’ reactions change depending on what decision the group makes? And do women and men respond similarly to women’s presence? Our research explains whether, when, and for whom the makeup of political institutions affects citizens’ perceptions of democratic legitimacy.

Our study is based on a November 2016 survey experiment. We asked a representative sample of Americans to read a hypothetical newspaper article about an eight-member state legislative committee evaluating sexual harassment policies. Our design varied both the gender makeup of the panel (all-male vs. gender-balanced) and the decision reached (increasing or decreasing penalties for those found guilty of harassment).

We asked respondents their feelings about the legitimacy of the decision itself, a concept we term substantive legitimacy. We also asked about their attitudes towards the decision-making process, willingness to acquiesce to the decision, and trust in the political institutions that made the decision. Together, these concepts capture procedural legitimacy. Our design allows us to see how citizens’ perceptions of governing institutions change based on whether policies advantage or disadvantage women and whether women are involved in the decision-making process.

We find that citizens, both men and women, strongly prefer gender-balanced decision-making bodies. At the same time, we also show important differences related to citizens’ assessments of substantive or procedural legitimacy, the decision the group reaches, and respondent gender.

Regarding substantive legitimacy, we find that aversion towards male-only panels is particularly strong when they make decisions that roll back women’s rights. Said another way, women’s presence adds legitimacy to policy decisions that harm women. Men especially respond positively to women’s presence in these conditions. Women’s inclusion may cue men that the decision is “right” for women (even though the decision objectively removes protections for women). At the same time, changing from an all-male to a gender-balanced panel does not affect the perceived legitimacy of decisions that expand women’s rights, for either men or women respondents.

Moving to procedural legitimacy, we find that citizens view decision-making procedures as more legitimate when women are present. This finding holds for both men and women, both when decisions expand group rights and when they restrict them. Even in cases in which all-male panels advance feminist policies, citizens report lower average levels of procedural fairness, institutional trust, and acquiescence as compared to the gender-balanced committee.

Our findings hold across citizens’ party identification, indicating that both Republicans and Democrats prefer gender-balanced panels. And, our results were replicated in June 2017, ensuring that our findings are not driven by the 2016 election, when women’s access to political power and sexual harassment were particularly salient media topics.

Importantly, our results concerning procedural legitimacy also hold when we focus on a policy issue where women’s rights are not at stake. A separate group of respondents saw a news story in which an all-male or gender-balanced panel could raise or lower penalties for the mistreatment of animals on commercial farms. In this experiment, women’s presence does not affect attitudes about the substance of the decision. Yet, respondents report higher average levels of perceived fairness, institutional trust, and acquiescence when the decision is made by a gender-balanced panel. Again, citizens prefer inclusion.

Together, our outcomes have mixed implications for politics and policy. On the one hand, women’s presence legitimizes policies that harm women. Actors looking to roll back group rights could thus manipulate public opinion by placing women on decision-making bodies in these instances.

On the other hand, our findings demonstrate the profound importance of inclusion. Women’s presence in elected office is necessary in order for political institutions to be seen as wholly legitimate. This holds across policy areas, and even when decisions expand women’s rights. Politicians should recognize that opprobrium against all-male panels is not just a social media trend, but a genuine citizen grievance. Having male-only policymakers erodes citizens’ beliefs in the democratic legitimacy of their political institutions.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Amanda Clayton is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, Diana Z. O’Brien is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, and Jennifer M. Piscopo is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College. Their research “All Male Panels? Representation and Democratic Legitimacy” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the 2018 Sophonisba Breckinridge Award for the best paper on the topic of women and politics.