Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does Female Incumbency Reduce Gender Bias in Elections? Evidence from Chile

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does Female Incumbency Reduce Gender Bias in Elections? Evidence from Chile

Article excerpt

Much of the academic literature corroborates the conven- tional wisdom that women face bias-often in the form of gender stereotypes that suggest that women lack the attri- butes of leadership and are therefore "unelectable"- when attempting to enter the political arena. In particular, empirical research has focused on the inability of sub- stantial numbers of women to break into electoral politics as well as the various institutional mechanisms that (forc- ibly) reduce constraints that women face in becoming both candidates and elected officeholders. Despite the introduction of such mechanisms, only 18 percent of par- liamentarians around the globe are women.

Yet, if one problem that aspiring female politicians face is the belief that women are unelectable, do women continue to confront such bias once they have been elected? We propose using incumbency to gain leverage on this question, investigating whether female incum- bents continue to encounter gendered bias that results in a lower likelihood of being re-nominated and re-elected than male incumbents. If bias against women is truly due to beliefs in their "unelectability," disparities between women and men should decline once women are elected.

The case of Carolina Goic serves as an example. Goic currently serves as a senator from Magallanes, in the south of Chile. In her first election in 2005, Goic ran for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies as the candidate of the Christian Democratic Party. Goic obtained the highest vote share by a margin of less than 3 points over her near- est competitor in a highly contested district (the four highest vote-getters each obtained between 21 % and 27% of the vote). As an incumbent, the 2009 elections proved an easier contest for Goic: not only did she beat her nearest competitor by 7.5 percentage points, but she was also paired with a much weaker coalitional partner who obtained less than 5 percent of the vote. As Goic explained shortly after those elections, "Four years ago, the voters bet on a woman, and I became the first female Deputy from Magallanes .. . when I ran for re-election, I got the votes to show that their bet had paid off" (Observatorio Género y Equidad 2009, 1).

Despite such examples, most of the literature examin- ing gender and incumbency approaches the relationship as a negative one. Incumbency effects are typically viewed as an additional impediment to female political representation. Women are rarely incumbents and thus seldom receive the resource and reputational advantages that come with being an incumbent, while more fre- quently contesting races against incumbents with those advantages. The positive, or even neutralizing, effects of incumbency on women's representation have received little scholarly attention outside the context of the United States. If women are less likely to be nominated by their parties because they are perceived to be less qualified, weaker, and less competitive candidates, what happens when they demonstrate that they can be winners?

We investigate the ability of the incumbency advan- tage to overcome bias against women. At the nomination stage, if we assume that bias against women is partly due to strategic choices by parties driven by the desire for electoral success, then the incumbency advantage should serve to eliminate remnants of this particular bias: female incumbents should be as likely as their male counterparts to be re-nominated by their parties once they have proven themselves electorally. Generally, incumbency should positively encourage re-nomination as a result of the clear signal about a candidate's electability. In addition, if the bias against women occurs at the election stage (in part the result of inexperience with female politicians by voters), then the incumbency advantage should under- mine this bias as well: female incumbents should be as likely to be re-elected as their male counterparts because of increasing familiarity with women leaders via a dem- onstration effect. …

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