Do female MPs represent women’s interests in parliament? Yes, but only if the electoral system permits it!

FOTO CREDIT: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

It is a common assumption that the election of more women to parliament leads to a higher representation of women’s interests in the legislative arena. Because female members of parliament (MPs) share gender-specific experiences with the female population – so the argument goes – it is expected that they are more concerned with women-specific topics and that they also represent these issues more frequently in the parliamentary process compared with their male colleagues (Phillips 1995). On the one hand, this is corroborated by a number of studies showing that female legislators have different priorities than male MPs (Coffé and Reiser 2018), that they increasingly engage in plenary and committee debates on women-specific interests (Bäck, Debus and Müller 2014), and that they introduce more law initiatives on women-specific interests (Volden, Wiseman, and Wittmer 2018). On the other hand, however, many of these studies also reveal that the legislative behavior of female MPs does not always indicate strong commitments to the representation of women-specific interests. Besides the justified critique that women are not a homogenous group with a fixed set of interests, these results also spurred the conclusion that the link between descriptive and substantive representation of women seems to be more complicated than previously assumed and that we should focus on the analysis of the conditions and institutional settings under which female legislators are able to act on behalf of women.

In my recent publication in Political Research Quarterly, I contribute to this debate and analyze whether the electoral system has an effect on the substantive representation of women in parliament. Previous studies have repeatedly shown that, in contrast to majoritarian systems (SMD), proportional electoral rules (PR) have a positive effect on the descriptive representation of women, i.e. the number of women that get elected to parliament (Wängnerud 2009). At the moment, however, we know very little about whether the electoral formula also affects the substantive representation of women and whether female MPs are more likely to represent women’s interests under PR or SMD systems.

I expect that different electoral incentive structures moderate the parliamentary behavior of female MPs and significantly affect their possibilities to focus on the representation of women’s interests. In SMD systems, female legislators have to win the majority of votes of the constituency in their districts to be re-elected to parliament. An exclusive representation of women’s interests and a simultaneous disregard of the male constituency could thus be a risky strategy. If a legislator spends most of her time dealing with women’s issues, many other potential problems of the district could not be brought to the legislative arena and many of the local voters would not feel sufficiently represented. This necessity to develop a representational style that is sensitive to all local problems of the district constrains female MPs from exclusively concentrating on women-specific interests. In proportional systems, however, where re-election mainly depends on the vote share of the party at the national level, female MPs are not bounded by any local responsibilities. Hence, the electoral incentive structure of PR systems gives female MPs the opportunity to concentrate on the substantive representation of women, without having to fear any electoral disadvantage.

To put these expectations to an empirical test, I analyze the parliamentary behavior of female and male MPs in the German Bundestag (2005-2013). The German mixed electoral system (half of the MPs are elected via SMD, the other half via PR) offers the promising possibility to observe the behavior of MPs that are elected under different electoral rules within the same country. However, given that most MPs in Germany run as dual candidates in both electoral tiers, I use the re-election safety of a legislator in the two different tiers to operationalize the overlapping electoral incentive structures and to take potential contamination effects into account (Stoffel and Sieberer 2018). In a nutshell, if the re-election probability of female MPs is high (either through a promising list slot or candidacy in a stronghold district), they do not depend on additional local votes from their districts to get re-elected and are able to more strongly concentrate on the exclusive representation of women’s interests. If their chances of getting re-elected are low, they have to devote many of their scarce resources to district-related tasks to fight for additional votes from their local voters. To measure how strong MPs engage in women’s substantive representation, I use written and oral parliamentary questions (PQs) and coded how many PQs with a women-specific concern each MP has submitted.

My results generally support the idea that female MPs engage more strongly in women’s substantive representation. 32% of all female MPs actively represent women’s issues in the parliamentary arena and table at least one women-specific PQ. In contrast, only 12% of the male MPs act on the behalf of women. Among all women-specific PQs, 73% were issued by female MPs. However, the results also strongly support that the behavior of female MPs is moderated by the electoral system and that the electoral incentive structure affects how many women-specific PQs they submit. Based on a beta regression, Figure 1 below shows the effect of electoral security on the predicted proportion of women-specific PQs separately for men and women. As can be seen in the right panel, female legislators more frequently act on behalf of women compared with male MPs if their re-election is safe, which means that they do not depend on the representation of local interests from the constituencies in their districts. Across the full range of the electoral security scale, the predicted proportion for the share of women-specific PQs that an MP submits increases from slightly above 6 percent to almost 9 percent for women and decreases from 8.5 to slightly under 6 percent for male MPs.

Figure 1. Interaction effect of gender and electoral incentive structure on the intensity of substantive representation of women.2019_august_hoehmann_fig1

The results confirm the theoretical expectations and show that female legislators act more strongly on behalf of women if their re-election is secured and if they do not have to fight for additional local votes from their district. Otherwise, the necessity to represent the local interests of their constituencies prevents female MPs from an exclusive representation of women’s interests.

Yes, women do represent women’s interests in parliament, but they do it more strongly if their electoral incentive structure permits it! Whenever the electoral incentive structure does not force MPs to represent local issues of their districts, female legislators use this opportunity to more strongly act in the interest of women.

Want to read more on electoral systems and women in parliament? You can find the full article here.

By Daniel Höhmann in August 2019


Daniel Höhmann is a PhD candidate at the University of Bamberg, Germany. His current research focuses on political representation, women and politics, and coalition governance. His work was published among others in the Journal of Politics, West European Politics, Political Research Quarterly, Public Choice, and the Journal of Legislative Studies.


Bäck, Hanna, Marc Debus, and Jochen Müller. 2014. “Who Takes the Parliamentary Floor? The Role of Gender in Speech-making in the Swedish Riksdag.” Political Research Quarterly, 67(3): 504–518.

Coffé, Hilde, and Marion Reiser. 2018. “Political Candidates’ Attitudes Towards Group Representation.” Journal of Legislative Studies 24(3): 272-297.

Phillips, Anne. 1995. The Politics of Presence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stoffel, Michael, and Ulrich Sieberer. 2018. “Measuring Re-Election Prospects Across Electoral Systems: A General Approach Applied to Germany.” West European Politics 41(5): 1191–1207.

Volden, Craig, Alan Wiseman, and Dana Wittmer. 2018. “Women’s Issues and Their Fates in the US Congress.” Political Science Research and Methods 6(4): 679-696.

Wängnerud, Lena. 2009. “Women in Parliaments: Descriptive and Substantive Representation.” Annual Review of Political Science 12(1): 51–69.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s