Florida ranks 23rd in electing women to Legislature–but what does that really mean?

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The number of women serving in Florida’s legislature has decreased, and according to a new study, the state now ranks 23rd in the nation for its ratio of elected women. The Center for American women and Politics cites Florida’s 12 women in the State Senate and 28 in the House — an average of 25 percent. Comparatively, in Colorado, 41 percent of  the legislature is female; while in Louisiana, the ratio drops to under 12 percent.

So, what does this mean? Does it matter? Warning: get your Poli Sci 101 hats back on.

Shared demographic attributes may contribute to trust between constituents and their legislators; that’s common sense, and there are no shortage of academics or politicos who explicitly argue that.  But a wide gap exists between this belief and evidence that gender diversity matters in the policy realm.

“Descriptive representation” — i.e. your legislator looking like you or sharing your gender — differs from “substantive representation” — i.e. you and your legislator believe in similar things.  Some people feel that the two are meaningfully connected, or that female legislators have traits that differ in a way that will benefit female constituents… only that’s not really what the data say.

I’ll start with what seems to be true: in the abstract, constituents do seem to like or trust the idea that their representative be the same gender or race, but enter a set of actual candidates and much of these preferences disappear.  

Now, here is a whole lot of stuff suggesting that the gender of individual legislators, and the proportion of women in each legislative body, matters not so much.

First, regarding policy outcomes:  what bills are passed by a given committee or legislature, and how these relate to women’s issues. Most research on state-level policies show little or no relationship between laws that pass and the ratio of women serving in the body.  In fact, beginning in the early 1990s, as the number of elected women increased, their willingness and ability to pursue a “women’s” agenda declined.  Specifically, studies have failed to uncover links between the composition of the legislature and the adoption of bills on issues such as women’s health or domestic violence.

Then, there’s the issue of constituent responsiveness.  Although in surveys, female legislators report that they are more responsive to constituents than their male colleagues, this is not so in reality. Various analyses show elected women and men spending equal amounts of time on constituent casework and meetings, and show both genders placing equal levels of importance on these activities.

What about how women practice politics? Could differences in leadership style mean something? Researchers have found few differences in the way female legislators participate in debate or negotiation; and to the contrary of expectations, some studies suggest men take a more “facilitative” role than women by asking more questions, seeking input, or thanking people.

All that aside, there were decades of American history (arguably still) where the election of women was important and necessary for its own sake. And perhaps only due to the ongoing efforts of groups like the Center for American Women and Politics, a new era has come where a candidate’s “substantive representation” may be a more pressing consideration than gender. According to their own research, since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled.  These are important stats to watch and promote — with some grains of salt on expectations of what it all means in practice.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher, and mother to three daughters.