Beatriz Maldonado-Bird, College of CharlestonAs more women enter the political arena as elected officials and secure positions of power, one economics professor breaks down the numbers to determine how gender may influence legislative decision-making and what that may mean for international relations.

by Beatriz Maldonado-Bird

A common quip is that in order to be successful in politics women need to be more like men. Indeed, advocates of this archaic witticism point to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even U.S. presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, claiming that these women have been politically successful because they did not push their female preferences, but have instead behaved like their male counterparts. Needless to say, in such a cynical world, female politicians have to tread a fine line between choices that could be labeled as women’s preferences and the expectations society sets for them as politicians.

When looking at politicians, is there any reason to think that gender might play a role in how someone behaves while in public office? It turns out that theory predicts that the answer is resoundingly yes. As most couples can attest, men and women often have different preferences. Frequently these are as trivial as tastes for sports, hobbies, cars and fashion choices. But gender differences sometimes appear in more meaningful spheres like career and parenting decisions. In fact, existing laboratory experiments have already shown that different preferences lead men and women to behave, on average, slightly differently in otherwise identical settings. For instance, some studies have shown that in bargaining situations, women tend to be more generous than their male counterparts.

My research focuses on the gender composition of national legislatures (instead of female heads of state like Thatcher and Merkel, of which there are depressingly too few to meaningfully analyze). For example, the national legislature (i.e., Congress) is made up of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Today’s Congress has 84 women in the House (out of 435 total seats) and 20 women in the Senate (out of 100 seats). In both legislative bodies, approximately 20 percent of the seats are held by women, the highest percentage of female legislators in the country’s history.

Although low, the share of women in government in the U.S. has actually been steadily rising, accelerating quite a bit during the 1990s. As more women run for office and win, do we see a change in the way the legislature votes on items based on the increased number of women legislators? One study found that women in the U.S. Congress, on average, are less likely than their male counterparts to support aid packages that include military aid regardless of their party affiliation. That is not to say that all congresswomen vote this way, but it’s a visible trend in the documented votes.

In my research, I examine how the gender composition of legislative bodies affects policy not only in the U.S., but also in other nations. Looking at this broader set of countries for the last 40 years, my co-authors and I study whether changes in the share of men and women in national legislatures affect the amount and type of foreign aid governments choose to donate.

Foreign aid is a broad term, encompassing money given in the form of loans or grants to other countries either directly by one nation or through international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank. Since on average, women and men have different preferences, and studies have found women to be more generous in experiments, we might expect that as the proportion of women in national legislatures increases so would the amount of foreign aid given.

In fact, when we look at the international data on women in parliaments and foreign aid given, we do find a relationship between the proportion of women and the amount of aid given. Legislatures with a larger share of women, on average, give more foreign aid. One could say that these legislative bodies become more “generous” when more women are elected, even after accounting for the ideology and parties in power.

Because women and men differ in average preferences for a whole range of things, we might also expect that they may have different opinions on how their foreign aid money is used, as with women in the U.S. being less likely to support military aid. While there is no international data on how military aid flows other than for the U.S., we do have information on how most general aid is earmarked. These categories span uses such as education, health, general budget, support for small businesses, etc.

When looking at these categories, we find that women in office support higher levels of foreign aid directed specifically for education and health. They also give more aid during times of acute need – after natural disasters and during war. In other words, we show that countries with more women in office are more responsive to the immediate needs of nations suffering from a disaster (such as an earthquake) and from war (both international and civil). Consistent with these humanitarian goals, we find that as the share of women in national legislatures increases, more aid flows not to political allies, but instead to less developed regions of the world or regions that exhibit greater economic need.

Why does all of this matter? Since women are under- represented in politics, having more women in legislatures helps advance democratic values of fair representation and gender equality and is obviously a desirable goal in and of itself. But this isn’t the end of the story. Our research suggests that in addition to contributing to gender-balanced politics, more women in legislatures may actually impact policy outcomes in important ways. As the empowerment of women in governments around the world advances, our findings suggest that we could expect to see increases in foreign aid, particularly aid directed towards the world’s poorest regions and targeted towards human development. We should also expect to see a foreign policy environment more responsive to the humanitarian concerns of the international community and exhibiting a different, more representative, underlying set of motivations for foreign aid.

– Beatriz Maldonado-Bird is an assistant professor of international studies and economics.

Illustration by Nathan Durfee