Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell has an idea to fundamentally change politics: mandate that at least one of two seats in a legislature is occupied by a woman. Why is it important to increase the number of women in legislatures? Campbell explains that “it’s not a men-versus-women thing, it’s a matter of having different perspectives that qualify one another… Women experience the world differently from men in many perspectives and it’s important to have their voice there.”

This is a new expression of an old idea.  In 1967’s “The Concept of Representation,” political scientist Hanna Pitkin suggested two ways that politicians might act as representatives for women. The simplest kind of representation is descriptive representation: that women are represented when politicians look like them. The second kind of representation is substantive representation, in which certain kinds of policies reflect women’s interests while other kinds of policies reflect men’s interests. A woman would be substantively represented by a politician if that politician supported policies reflecting women’s interests.

Only women can descriptively represent women because only women are women. It is possible, however, that men could substantively represent women if they support the right policies. But according to Campbell, this possibility doesn’t come to pass. Campbell claims that women in politics bring a different perspective and pursue different policies than men. In short, Campbell claims that descriptive representation leads to substantive representation.

Let’s evaluate Campbell’s claim by taking a look at the 126th Maine State Legislature here in Augusta.  If there really are women’s interests and men’s interests reflected in the bills considered by the legislature, and if Campbell is right that women politicians pursue women’s interests while men politicians pursue men’s interests, then we should see women in the legislature joining with other women in support of bills more often, and men in the legislature joining with other men in support of bills more often, but women and men coming together across gender lines to support bills less often.

As part of the Open Maine Politics project, I’ve tracked every time that a Maine state legislator signed on in support of (“co-sponsored”) a bill in the 126th legislature. Then I’ve looked at all possible pairs of legislators, some of which share the same gender and some of which don’t. How many bills are co-sponsored by both legislators in a pair? If Campbell is right, that number should be higher on average when legislators share the same gender. But as the graph below shows, the difference between same-gender and different-gender pairs is very, very small:


Compare this to the difference according to shared political party:


When we look at all possible combinations of shared gender and party, differences by gender remain small and differences by party remain large:


At least in the Maine legislature, Campbell’s claims about gender in politics are not borne out.  Requiring a certain number of women in legislatures may not ensure women’s perspectives are represented.

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