Gendered Discourse in the Political Behavior of Adolescents

By Rosenthal, Cindy Simon; Jones, Jocelyn et al. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Gendered Discourse in the Political Behavior of Adolescents


Rosenthal, Cindy Simon, Jones, Jocelyn, Rosenthal, James A., Political Research Quarterly


The roots of adult civic and political participation originate in pre-adult experiences (Verba et al. 1995) and high school extracurricular activities offer students opportunities to develop interpersonal and leadership skills. In this research, we ask whether adolescents also learn gendered norms of political discourse through extracurricular activities. This project assessed gender differences in participation at the 1999 Model United Nations of the Southwest (MUNSW) at the University of Oklahoma. Important differences in participation were observed in the number and character of speaking turns taken by male and female delegates. We find that contextual factors, such as the sex of the committee chair, the issue areas addressed by the committee, and the timing of the session in the conference significantly influence who participates in the discourse, but the percentage of female participants surprisingly does not. The character of the political discourse suggests norms dominated by masculinity.

Concerned about the quality of political representation, a number of scholars have turned their attention to women's participation in the political discourse of state and national legislatures. Women's inclusion in public debate is important because women bring different experiences, attitudes, and resources to the political table (Tamerius 1995; Schlozman et al. 1995). Women's efforts, however, may be thwarted by the realities of institutional life. Kathlene (1995) finds, for example, that women may not be fully effective at promoting feminist policy because of gendered power dynamics present in legislatures.

A few studies have addressed the gendered nature of political discourse in legislative settings (Kathlene 1994, 1995; Mattei 1998; Hale 1999; Levy et al. 2001; Walsh 2002.) What is unclear from prior research is whether the gendered contours of political discourse are primarily due to institutional factors or mostly a product of gendered norms of behavior per se. In this research, we address this question by exploring adolescent behavior in a legislative simulation. We ask: Is gender discourse in this kind of extra-curricular activity highly masculinized? What effect, if any, do institutional factors have on discourse?

Many universities sponsor Model United Nations (MUN) simulations as an extracurricular activity for adolescents and young adults from middle school through college. These simulations provide an opportunity to view adolescent socialization to world politics and offer a quasi-experimental setting in which to examine how male and female adolescents engage in political discourse and experience political learning. In this project, we observe the University of Oklahoma's 1999 Model United Nations of the Southwest (MUNSW), where 382 adolescents and young adults engaged in the process of acquiring skills of debate, negotiation, and coalition building. As Roberta S. Sigel (1989: 468) admonishes: ". . . inasmuch as we always maintain that political socialization is a process, it is imperative to collect process data. . . . An ongoing process cannot be studied by such [retrospective] methods and even less by the administration of mass survey instruments. It must be studied by observing it as it progresses, i.e., in the field."

GENDER DISCOURSE

Turn-taking is a critical variable in political discourse. To speak in a political setting is the threshold activity required of a person to be seen, heard, and to represent oneself or others. In the context of a roleplay, participants are acting as policy representatives but absent the realities of electoral and cultural ties. In Pitkin's (1967) typology, they are literally "acting for." "Their role, the reason for labeling their job as 'representing,' is to speak for, act for, look after the interests of their respective groups"(116, emphasis added). Turns also are a key measure of gender power differences and expectations about the competence of participants in mixed-sex interaction. …

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