Our cabinet will survive! How women in the executive influence government stability

FOTO CREDIT: Stephanie Hofschlaeger/ pixelio.de

“Women in general
are better listeners,
are more collegial,
more open to new ideas and how to make things work
in a way that looks for win-win outcomes”

Hillary Clinton in the Time Magazine

(Newton-Small, 7 January 2016)

The interaction of cabinet members takes place inside a black box. However, when disputes within the government become public, it appears like female cabinet members display a different leadership style than their male colleagues. For instance, gendered conflict resolution strategies became visible when the Merkel IV cabinet had to define a new climate protection strategy in 2019 and interests in various policy areas clashed. Disagreement between the female minister of environment, Svenja Schulze (SPD), and the female minister of agriculture, Julia Klöckner (CDU/CSU), were solved through direct communication and focused on the substance of the problem. By contrast, the male minister of transport, Andreas Scheuer (CDU/CSU), attacked the environmental minister on a personal level and through the media. Scheuer publicly claimed that Schulze intentionally reached poor results for Germany at EU-level negotiations to put her interests through, compared her policy proposals to communist policies and limited the scope for compromise by claiming his party would never support initiatives similar to those of Schulze (Kersting and Murphy 2019; Krämer 2018; Preker 2020; Welt 2019). Public disputes of this sort can have far-reaching consequences and cause fractions within government. In our new article in the Journal of European Public Policy, we propose that – as a consequence of such gendered patterns of leadership style – women’s presence as ministers and prime ministers decreases the risk for early cabinet termination and, hence, makes governments more stable.

To develop this argument, we build on the literature that highlights gender differences in leadership style. According to this scholarly work, women prefer to solve dissent and conflict through collaborative and compromise-oriented strategies, while men tend to opt for hierarchical and confrontational plans of action (Kellerman et al. 2007; March and Weil 2005; Norris 1996). Three sets of empirical research lend support to this claim: To begin with, research on women in top management positions shows that female leaders aim to encourage the participation of everyone involved into decision-making procedures and share power while their male colleagues more frequently engage in top-down decisions (Eagly 2007; Rosener 1990). In the field of international relations, the ‘women and peace’ hypothesis (Tessler et al. 1999) indicates that women are less belligerent than their male colleagues, are more willing to share resources, and take other’s preferences into account even if this implies not being able to maximize their personal gains. Lastly, scholars of legislative behavior revealed that women tend to apply democratic and consensual strategies; they invest more time and effort into creating within- and across-party coalitions (Carey et al. 1998; Volden et al. 2013). When asked about their leadership style, female legislators stress their dedication to settle dispute by concessions on each side (Childs 2000, 2004). Overall, there are thus various cues that women are more compromise-oriented than men.

From the gendered nature of leadership styles, we, firstly, argue that the presence of female prime ministers decreases the risk for government termination as a consequence of conflict within the cabinet. A woman as prime minister will invest more effort to proactively integrate all relevant actors into decisions than male office-holders, which should reduce the probability that major conflicts occur. If disagreement between ministers emerges, female heads of government are better equipped to act as mediators and support those involved in finding acceptable compromises. If the prime minister is part of the conflict, a woman tends to prefer dispute settlement through consensual decisions instead of escalating the situation with top-down rulings. Men as heads of government, in turn, should have a higher propensity to let conflicts escalate and are not that well prepared to settle them. Secondly, we argue that higher proportions of women in the executive can also enhance government stability by reducing the risk for intra-cabinet conflicts. If government members hold opposing positions, female ministers are more likely to actively search for compromise and make concessions, while male ministers should, according to the theory, prefer to push through their own optimal outcome. The more women are present in the executive, the more likely that they show their distinct behavior and utilize their compromise-oriented leadership style.

To test these propositions, we build on data covering 676 governments from 27 countries between 1945 and 2018.[1] Our dependent variable is cabinet duration measured as the number of days before conflictual termination of a cabinet. The main independent variables are the gender of the prime minister and the share of female cabinet members. To identify the gender of ministers and prime ministers, we gathered a full list of all cabinet members serving in democratic governments since 1945. Furthermore, we control for a broad variety of variables that influence cabinet stability or women’s chances to enter cabinets. As a modelling strategy, we use Cox proportional hazard models with shared frailty.

We find no clear evidence that the gender of the head of government impacts cabinet stability. The hazard ratio for this variable is below one but not statistically significant at conventional levels. While the heads of government are usually seen as the most important individuals in a cabinet, the effect of their gender does not seem to be strong enough to significantly reduce the risk of early government termination. The overall share of women in cabinet, however, appears to be a decisive factor influencing cabinet stability. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship by displaying the survival hazards for cabinets with the minimum share of women in cabinet (0, solid line), the mean share of women in cabinet (13.5, dashed line) and the maximum share of women in cabinet (54.6, dotted line). The x-axis shows the number of days since government formation whereas the y-axis displays the percentage of cabinets that have not yet been terminated. After a duration of 1000 days, the share of governments that survive up until this point is at around 45% if there are no female ministers and at around 80% in case of the maximum share of women in the cabinet observed in Finland under Katainen I and Sweden under Reinfeldt II. Overall, this evidence provides solid support for the second hypothesis, namely that the risk of early cabinet termination decreases with women’s presence in the executive.


Figure 1: Effect of the share of women in the cabinet on cabinet duration

These insights are robust to a broad variety of modifications in the model. Most notably, we include inflation, growth, and unemployment as proxy variables for the quality of policy outcomes created by a cabinet as a confounding variable. It could be possible that cabinets with larger shares of female ministers are more durable, because they make better policy decisions (Martin 2018). We observe that neither of the economic performance variables unfolds a statistically significant effect on cabinet stability, while the effect of the share of women in cabinet remains stable. This suggest that women enhance cabinet duration by other means than economic performance and we propose that this factor is leadership style.

This study has important implications for the sets of literature engaging with politics and gender as well as cabinet stability. Firstly, our findings suggest that female ministers are able to introduce different behavioral norms and change the nature of politics towards a more compromise-oriented setting. Beyond the outbreak of violent conflicts and legislative behavior, cabinet stability is another political phenomenon on which the gender of the involved actors unfolds a significant impact. Secondly, these insights contribute to the literature on government duration by introducing individual-level characteristics of the involved actors as explanatory variables. While previous literature took party strategies, critical events, and the institutional set-up of the government and parliament into account, we show that the behavior of the government members, as a consequence of their gender, matters.

By Svenja Krauss and Corinna Kroeber in June 2020

[1] For details on the data sources, operationalizations, and results please refer to the full paper.

Svenja Krauss is a DAAD Lecturer at the University of Essex. Her research focuses on comparative politics, especially coalition governments, political parties and political behavior. So far, she has published on the impact of coalition agreements on governments’ stability and she currently analyzes the interplay between portfolio allocation and control mechanisms in coalition governments. Her work was published in West European Politics and German Politics.

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