Over my decades of political involvement, I have had the privilege of knowing a few trailblazers. Among these are several women who were among the first to serve in the Florida Legislature. These women helped establish the right of women to be full and equal partners in the legislative process.
I was reminded of their stories when I saw a piece by Brittany Wallman in the Sun Sentinel about the changing of the guard on the Broward County Commission. The commission, long dominated by women, now is led by men.
Ms. Wallman’s piece captured the musings of several individuals in and out of office about whether the gender of commissioners made a difference.
One way to think about representation is to hold a mirror up to the representative body. Does it reflect the composition of the people for whom it makes decisions? We often feel more comfortable with the actions of a decision-making body if some of the members appear to be like us. But is that subjective feeling related in any way to actual policy differences?
The answer must be nuanced. Just because someone is female, or black, or Hispanic, or older, or someone who works with their hands, or college educated, or Baptist, does not mean that she/he will advocate for positions that are the same as any other person with similar traits. In fact, there’s no such thing as a singular perspective, or a singular set of interests, when we refer to any demographic group.
What we can say is that these sociological classifications tend to be associated with different political and policy preferences.
Social scientists have observed for more than three decades that women are more likely than men to vote for the Democratic candidate for president. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that most women vote for the Democrat. It only means that a higher percentage of women than of men vote for the Democratic candidate.
Why do men and women tend to vote differently?
One popular answer is that it is all about abortion. The data, however, suggest otherwise. Many studies have found no statistical difference in attitudes about abortion between men and women. One illustration: a 2016 survey by Pew Research Centers found a slightly larger percentage of men than of women believed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (the difference, again, was not statistically significant).
An alternative interpretation that I find compelling suggests that compassion drives the difference. Women may translate policy considerations into questions of care for others more readily than men. I first encountered this logic in Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice; it continues to find support in research (such as this experimental study based on the 2000 election).
Applied to a decision-making body, this suggests that the policies it will adopt may tend to vary with the gender composition of the body. And that, of course, matters.
These are just tendencies. But they are persistent, and statistically significant, and substantively meaningful.
The larger lesson is that our differences in experiences can and frequently do translate into different approaches to policy choices. No one approach is right. And a variety of approaches, born of a variety of life journeys, can enrich the policy debate and improve our ultimate choices.