Exploring Gender Differences in State Legislators' Policy Preferences

Article excerpt

While a great deal of research documents women elected officials' more liberal policy attitudes and concludes that increased women's representation will produce more liberal policies, I argue that the influence of gender and ultimately the influence of women's representation remain unclear. First, constituency demands may explain observed gender differences. Second, the influence of gender may vary among legislators. I find that although constituency interests do have a significant effect, women continue to express significantly more liberal welfare policy preferences than men. In addition, I find that gender differences in legislators' preferences are greater among Republican and conservative legislators than among Democratic and liberal legislators. Consequently, predicting the impact of increasing women's representation on policy is likely to be more complex than previously thought.

A great deal of work on women and politics contends that women elected officials express greater interest in representing women's issues and hold more liberal policy opinions than their male colleagues because of their experiences and responsibilities in the private sphere (e.g., Carey, Niemi, and Powell 1998; Diamond 1977; Leader 1977). Much of this work concludes that increased numbers of women elected officials will produce more liberal public policy (see e.g., Mandel and Dodson 1993; Mezey 1994; Sapiro 1981; Thomas 1994; Thomas and Welch 1991). Despite the volume of the research documenting women legislators' more liberal policy attitudes, the influence of gender on members' preferences remains unclear. Many studies of differences in men and women state legislators' policy attitudes are inconclusive because they fail to account for alternative explanations of observed gender differences, namely the effect of constituency demands. If constituency characteristics, rather than gender, explain observed gender differences in legislators' preferences then the conclusion that the election of more women to public office will produce more liberal policy may be incorrect.

In this article, I conduct a more complete test of the effect of gender on state legislators' policy preferences. Using data collected from a mail survey of state legislators, I estimate the effects of gender and constituency interests on state legislators' welfare policy attitudes. This project examines gender differences in legislators' policy preferences, rather than observable legislative behavior, because policy attitudes may provide a better estimate of the impact of gender. In comparison, members' recorded votes on legislation, the most common dependent variable in studies of legislative behavior (see Tamerius 1995), may be the product ol strategic calculations rather than a reflection of gendered attitudes. For example, if a woman legislator believes that her constituents oppose a particular bill that is unlikely to pass regardless of her vote, she may strategically decide to vote against the bill and satisfy her constituents even if she herself favors the bill. However, in other less observable legislative arenas, like the committee stage, she may actively work toward the objectives specified in the bill and the eventual passage of similar legislation. Investigating men's and women's policy preferences provides an opportunity to estimate the influence of gender outside of these strategic considerations and gain a better understanding of the effect of gender on legislators' less public legislative activitiesactivities that not only comprise a great deal of legislative work but also have a substantial influence on the policymaking process (see Hall 1996).

I focus on legislators' attitudes toward welfare policy because more general ideological orientations and policy priorities may mask small but significant differences in men and women's policy positions. In addition, prior work suggests that men and women legislators are likely to express different policy opinions on issues, like welfare, that affect children, women, and families in particular (Diamond 1977; Leader 1977). …