Gender and the Republicans

If you’re interested in the relationship between gender and politics, you won’t want to miss a piece this week by Perry Bacon at FiveThirtyEight, “Why The Republican Party Elects So Few Women.” The data is all American, but a lot of the findings would apply in Australia as well.

I was particularly struck by one passage:

A CNN poll from late 2017 … asked if the country would be “governed better or governed worse if more women were in political office?” Sixty-four percent of respondents overall said better. But there was a huge partisan split: 83 percent of Democrats said better versus just 36 percent of Republicans — 21 percent of Republicans said “worse” and 28 percent said “no difference.”

To me, the “better” answer is pretty obvious. If half the population is severely under-represented among office-holders, then government will be getting less-talented people than it would if everyone had a fair shot at it. Drawing from a larger talent pool, other things being equal, means getting more talent.*

But since there’s obviously significant resistance to this answer, it got me thinking, how could one argue against it?

Now, I imagine that most of those who answered don’t really have a counter-argument. They’ve just started with something like “Well, women and men are equally talented, so replacing men with women won’t make any difference,” and haven’t thought through the mathematics of it. But for those who understand the argument and want to rebut it, three possibilities suggest themselves:

(1) Women are in some way intrinsically less suited to government, so the disproportion is explicable and therefore nothing to worry about. The argument from maximising talent obviously depends on the assumption that talent is randomly distributed between the two halves of the population; without that assumption, there’s no reason to want to promote more women. But note that the difference has to be intrinsic: if it’s just something about how women are conditioned, for example, then that would lead to a demand to do something about that conditioning and unlock the unused talent.

(2) There’s something about women’s skills, attitudes or the like that would be counter-productive in government. So although bringing in more women would increase the talent being applied to government, it would be applied in bad ways or for bad purposes to such an extent as to lead to a worse result. (For example, people on the right may point out that women’s political preferences tend to skew to the left, suggesting that a government with more women in it would adopt more left-wing policies.)

(3) The under-representation of women, while not desirable in itself, is a by-product of something else that’s important or necessary for good government – in other words, the factors that keep women down are inherently valuable. So, it might be argued, laws and conventions that impose a gendered division of labor and oblige women to do most of the work of child-rearing are necessary for social stability and therefore on balance promote good government, even though as a side effect they reduce the talent pool for office-holders.

I’m not sure which of these would be uppermost in Republicans’ minds. I suspect (3) is the most popular, but there’s probably a healthy proportion of (1) and (2) as well. Many, perhaps, would believe all three.

My own view is that all three arguments are untenable, and that having more women in government would be a good thing. It doesn’t follow, however, that we should try to achieve that by just any means at all. For example, if women tend to have a genuine preference to avoid politics, that preference needs to be respected, even if we know that it’s been socially conditioned. We should concentrate on changing the conditioning for the future.

And if we increase the representation of women not by removing the barriers to women in general, but by pulling out and promoting particular women, then there’s no longer any assurance that that will improve things – we might be picking out the wrong ones.


* Of course, if they’re not in office, those talented women will be somewhere else, and it could be argued that they will do more good there than they would have in government – in other words, it may be that government wastes whatever talent it gets. But the question says “governed better”, not “better off in general.”

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