Rising to the Top: Gender, Political Performance, and Party Leadership in Parliamentary Democracies

The forthcoming article “Rising to the Top: Gender, Political Performance, and Party Leadership in Parliamentary Democracies” by Diana Z. O’Brien is summarized here:

In parliamentary democracies, changes in party leadership are newsworthy events. The battle between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard over the leadership of the Australian Labour Party attracted international attention, and there is already a great deal of speculation about who might lead the major British parties following the next general election. The selection of a new leader attracts a great deal of attention for good reason. In parliamentary systems, party leaders are the most prominent politicians. Leaders shape party and government policies. They serve as the “face” of the organization, and constitute an important reason why people vote for (or against) the party. The leader also typically holds the most prestigious government post available to his or her party when in office. For major parties, the party leader serves as prime minister. In coalition governments, minor party leaders often fill desirable cabinet portfolios.

Because of the power imbued in this position, the party leadership represents the most important glass ceiling remaining for women in politics.  It has also proved to be a difficult one to shatter. Looking across 71 political parties in 11 advanced industrialized democracies between 1965 and 2013, women comprise only 14% of leaders (61 of 441). At the same time, there are signs that these old patterns of exclusion are eroding. Almost half of all parties (34 of 71) have now selected at least one female leader and each country in the study has had at least one female-led party.

When are parties likely to first select a female leader? And what happens to female leaders after they enter the post? My statistical analysis of gendered patterns of party leadership reveals an important trend: women’s access to, and tenure in, these posts is influenced by parties’ political performance. Parties’ successes (and failures) among voters shape both their initial selection of a female leader and whether women are subsequently able to keep their positions.  These results hold even when accounting for party ideology and the supply of prospective female leaders.

Considering the time until the initial selection of a female leader, it becomes clear that large, governing parties, as well as those that are gaining seat share, are likely to remain male led. Women are most likely to first come to power in parties that are losing seat share, and in small, opposition parties.  Indeed, some of the most prominent female leaders—including Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and Finland’s Jutta Urpilainen—came to power when their parties were performing poorly. When parties are out of power or losing votes, there are likely to be fewer viable male challengers seeking the leadership post. In these cases, parties may also be more willing to take risks on new kinds of leaders, including women, who may turn the tide of public opinion in their favor.

Once in office, performance also shapes women’s tenure in the post. My analysis of the career lengths of over four hundred leaders reveals that when parties are performing well, female leaders have a greater likelihood of remaining in the position than similarly situated men. This is consistent with well-known, long-serving female leaders, including Merkel, Thatcher, and New Zealand’s Helen Clark. These women arguably held on to their posts precisely because they bolstered their parties’ electoral trajectories. When parties lose seat share, however, women are more likely than similarly situated men to leave their leadership posts.  Consider the Australian Labour Party’s ousting of Julia Gillard in 2013. The party lost seat share in the previous federal election and there were strong indications that Labour would lose additional ground in the upcoming race. The party’s poor performance laid the groundwork for Gillard’s defeat.

Together these results provide cause for optimism and pessimism alike.  On the one hand, there are many more female leaders than ever before. When parties gain seat share, moreover, women are more likely than men to remain in leadership posts. On the other hand, it is impossible to overlook the fact that women are doubly disadvantaged with respect to the party leadership. Women are more likely to initially come to power when the post is least desirable, and female leaders have a greater likelihood of leaving the position when their parties lose seat share. Even the advantage enjoyed by well-performing female leaders may not be wholly positive. Their longer tenure is likely indicative of the exceptional nature of the women who are able to both gain entry into, and then succeed in, these positions. That is, “winning women” may stay in the post precisely because they have overcome especially high barriers to entry and/or rehabilitated poorly performing parties. Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that (prospective) female leaders are playing by a different and often more demanding set of rules than their male counterparts.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.