Dec. 16, 2016

Is There a Bias Against Women's Issues in Congress?

Just as there are gender gaps in major American elections, so too are there gender gaps in the issues advanced by women in Congress. The concept of so-called women’s issues has been discussed for decades and sometimes used to diminish the political contributions of women. Yet there is substantial evidence that, on average, men and women have different legislative priorities. The fates of their proposals is less well understood.

On the one hand, women in Congress may be treated as experts in areas traditionally deemed women’s issues such as health, education, family and housing. Their proposals may be taken more seriously and advanced further through the lawmaking process. Such success would be consistent with recent evidence that women have been more effective lawmakers in Congress than men.

On the other hand, however, men still substantially outnumber women in Congress. They have greater seniority and are more likely to hold committee chair positions. And their priorities are therefore likely to take center stage, potentially brushing aside the proposals of women.

Which of these forces is stronger? As part of the Legislative Effectiveness Project at the University of Virginia, we have tracked the sponsors and fate of every bill introduced in the House of Representatives over the past 40 years. We’ve used these bill data to score the effectiveness of every member of Congress and make those ratings widely available.

In an article forthcoming in the journal Political Science Research and Methods, the project researchers Craig Volden (University of Virginia), Alan Wiseman (Vanderbilt University) and Dana Wittmer (Colorado College) used those data to assess women’s issues and their fates, with three key findings.

First, the authors found that women in Congress since the 1970s have indeed sponsored women’s issues at a significantly greater rate than have men. Across 19 different issue areas, women substantially sponsored more bills on six issues, all of which correspond to those labeled as women’s issues by earlier scholars.

Second, such women’s issues are significantly more gridlocked than other issues in Congress. On average, only 4 percent of bills introduced in Congress become law. Depending on one’s impressions of Congress, this number may be too high or too low. But, in comparison, only 2 percent of women’s issue bills become law. This is an initial indication of an institutional bias against women’s proposals.

Now more than ever, women must unite to transcend partisan politics.

Third, and even more troubling, only 1 percent of women’s issue bills sponsored by women themselves become law. Put simply, women’s issues are twice as gridlocked as other issues. And women’s issues sponsored by women are again twice as gridlocked. Women are not treated as experts in these areas. Proposals in women’s issue areas are not even taken seriously, unless they are proposed by men.

Is this a bias that can be blamed on one party or the other? Not so much. As the figure illustrates, this pattern has been robust across the past 40 years, when Democrats have controlled Congress and when Republicans have been in charge. Female sponsors of women’s issues were more successful than male sponsors in only three of the 21 Congresses studied by the authors. And in no Congress have women’s issues achieved the legislative success of other issues.

The authors controlled for the fact that women in Congress were less senior, less likely to hold committee chairs and often in the minority party (such as presently with more Democratic women than Republican women). But the same pattern emerged – more gridlock on health, education and other issues sponsored more frequently by women.

How can women hope to succeed in business and politics when we aren’t opening doors for each other?

And yet one finding did suggest that those committee and subcommittee chairs played an important role. The patterns of gridlock shown in the figure did not just occur at the stage of bills being signed into law. Rather, similar biases arose in what issues received hearings in committee and which survived the committee gauntlet.

Would more women elected to Congress change these biases? Not immediately. Norms of seniority would keep those newly elected women from assuming the chair positions of subcommittees and committees. And without such say in what bills move forward and which die in committee, these patterns are likely to continue.

The best hope for changing this situation is awareness of the bias and pressure to change. Whether that pressure will come from women in Congress or from a larger effort remains to be seen. One might object to some policy areas being labeled as women’s issues or men’s issues. Health, education and welfare are important for the future of all Americans. The bias against thoughtful policy proposals in these areas should be troubling to men and women alike.

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Professor of Public Policy and Politics, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking
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Garrett L040