Women in public participation? Present but not heard.

How do women participate in group discussions? Are their voices heard? Do they have a fair say in deliberation outcomes? Christopher F. Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg’s pathbreaking experimental research, The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions, looks at the role of gender in decision-making groups with real-world evidence from the proceedings of 87 school board meetings in 20 states in the United States. women in public participation      

Women in the experimental discussions take part differently from men, find Karpowitz and Mendelberg. They face more interruptions and negative responses than men. They are less likely to affect an outcome. However, the behaviour of both men and women change with context. Groups in the discussions range from all men to all women. Decisions are made by majority rule or consensus. The study reveals that the proportion of women in the group affects participation – as does the type of decision. In minority, women have greater influence when decisions are made by consensus. When the number of women in the group increases, they are more empowered when decisions are made by majority rule. Men, the study notes, make less negative interruptions in situations favourable to women.

In his review in the Journal of Public Deliberation, Nick Felts of the Kettering Foundation writes: ‘The gender inequality highlighted by Karpowitz and Mendelberg poses an enormous threat to the promise of deliberation. Those involved in deliberation should pay close attention to this finding but also to the finding that this inequality can be mitigated if enough care is given to the design of deliberative institutions.’

Karpowitz and Mendelberg highlight the importance of the right combination of representation and decision-making rules. There is also an individual factor at play, they find. Women seem to display less confidence than men in discussions. The authors suggest that the right deliberative settings can help.  

The Silent Sex, winner of the 2015 David O. Sears Book Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, 2015 Robert E. Lane Award of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and co-winner of the Best Book Award, Experimental Research Section, APSA.

Christopher F Karpowitz is Associate Professor of political science at Brigham Young University, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Tali Mendelberg, professor in the Department of Politics, Princeton University, is the author of The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality.

Photo: Alexa Mazzarello/unsplash/cc

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