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Representation: Are gendered patterns in questioning activity stable over time?
In our last blog post, we introduced the new dataset “Every single word – A new dataset including all parliamentary materials published in Germany” that includes all written communication in the German Bundestag and was just published as part of our research note in Government and Opposition. We already presented a first example clarifying how this data might be used to advance research in the field of legislative careers. In this blog post, we provide a second example that exploits the data to study women’s representation in parliament. Moreover, we make some general remarks about the way this data can be used in future research.
The differences in the legislative priorities of male and female legislators are well researched – not only for the German case (Höhmann, 2019) but also beyond (Bäck et al., 2014; Baumann et al., 2015; Bratton, 2005; Childs, 2001; Lovenduski and Norris, 2003; Swers, 2002). These and similar contributions show that women set different issues on the parliamentary agenda – albeit to varying degrees depending on factors such as the electoral context or the ideological position of their party. Female legislators more frequently than their male colleagues engage with issues that pertain to the equal treatment of men and women, child and health care, education and redistribution. Studies in this field usually compare women’s representation by investigating rather short time horizons. However, potential moderating factors for the relationship between representatives’ gender and their legislative activity might vary over time, thereby leading to different findings depending on the investigated time period. The share of women in parliaments (Dahlerup 1988, Frederick 2009), the presence of critical feminist actors (Childs and Krook, 2009) or specific events such as abuse scandals and prominent cases of rape might reinforce or mitigate gendered behavioural patterns of politicians. The time series format of our dataset allows to test whether and how gendered patterns of legislative behaviour change over time.
To exemplify how our dataset allows answering this and similar research questions, we study oral questions submitted by legislators. Various studies use parliamentary requests to capture MPs’ legislative priorities in systems with high levels of party discipline, because single MPs can submit them autonomously and thus inform about the priorities of individuals. We identify all questions that include the keywords child (or children [Kind in German]) as well as any word combination including this word fragment (such as child care [Kinderbetreuung] or child benefit [Kindergeld]). Engaging with children’s’ wellbeing, their safety, education, and caretaking can be labelled a women’s issue according to traditional gender roles, because it relates to education and childcare.
Figure 1: Oral questions submitted by male and female representatives including the keyword “child” in Germany between 1949 and 2017.
The lower part of Figure 1 presents the share of all questions submitted by male and female legislators that are in one way or another concerned with children for every plenary meeting. As suggested by the theory, we observe that, ever since the late 1940s, women in the German parliament were more likely than men to submit respective requests. The visible fluctuation before the 1970s is mostly explained by cases in which female legislators did not submit any questions for a plenary meeting. However, the longitudinal data also reveals that the strength of this gender gap in questioning priorities decreased over time. It was most pronounced in the early decades, but, while persistent, is considerably smaller in more recent years. Notably, this modification is not a consequence of increasing numbers of questions submitted by men, but actually decreasing significance of the topic in women’s questioning activity.
Overall, this descriptive analysis indicates that context matters for studies of representation. The policy priorities of male and female legislators shift over time. These insights suggest that studies of women’s representation in the 1960s, 1980s, and 2000s would reach very different conclusions about the extent of gender differences in parliamentary activities. The present dataset thus enables researchers to develop a more nuanced, context-sensitive picture as to how legislative behaviour more broadly changed over time.
Beyond the two examples presented in this and the earlier post, our data opens the opportunity to study a whole set of innovative and timely research questions. Scholars might make use of the dataset to contribute to ongoing and new debates in various sets of literature such as representation, politics and gender, legislative careers and professionalisation, or comparative agenda studies. For that purpose, one might extract simple frequencies of occurrences, topics, representative claims, or sentiments from the records. Even though in-depth analyses of the texts are possible for German-speakers only, most information is accessible even for those not (that) familiar with the German language. This includes for example the frequency of occurrence, e.g. who asks how many parliamentary questions (addressing which ministry), or co-sponsorship of legislative drafts or proposals. Beyond, single or multiple keywords can provide, at least to some degree, access to the substance of the documents in the dataset for non-German speakers.
This data set makes Germany the only case for which all parliamentary material is available for scholarly work. We would like to see similar initiatives in other countries providing the service to the discipline and preparing comprehensive datasets for other countries, because merging our data with similar projects in the future will allow for yet another new comparative research agenda.
By Tobias Remschel and Corinna Kroeber in December 2020
Tobias Remschel is a PhD candidate at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. His research focuses on women’s political representation and the role of committee hearings in the legislative process.
 We again make use of Bergmann et al.’s dataset (2018) to identify MPs’ gender.
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