All Male Panels Erode Citizens’ Perceptions of Democratic Legitimacy

Author Summary of “All Male Panels? Representation and Democratic Legitimacy” by Amanda Clayton, Diana Z. O’Brien, Jennifer M. Piscopo

All Male Panels Erode Citizens' Perceptions of Democratic LegitimacyAll-male panels increasingly face public scorn, especially when their topic addresses matters connected to women’s experiences. Backlash against all-male panels suggests that women’s presence matters for citizens. Our research explains whether, when, and for whom the makeup of political institutions affects perceptions of democratic legitimacy.

We asked a representative sample of Americans to read a hypothetical newspaper article about an eight-member state legislative committee evaluating sexual harassment policies. Our experimental design varied both the gender makeup of the panel (all-male vs. gender-balanced) and the decision reached (increasing or decreasing penalties for those found guilty of harassment).

We asked respondents their feelings about the legitimacy of the decision itself (what we term substantive legitimacy), as well as their attitudes towards the decision-making process, willingness to acquiesce to the decision, and trust in the political institutions that made the decision (what we term procedural legitimacy).

We find that citizens, both men and women, strongly prefer gender-balanced decision-making bodies. At the same time, we also show important differences related to the decision reached and respondent gender.

Regarding the legitimacy of the decision itself, we find that aversion towards male-only panels is observed only when the committee rolls back women’s rights. Further, men respondents in particular respond especially positively to women’s presence when the all-male panel makes a decision that harms women. Yet, changing from an all-male to a gender-balanced panel does not affect the perceived legitimacy of decisions that expand women’s rights, for either men or women respondents.

Moving to the legitimacy of decision-making procedures, we find that citizens view decision-making as more legitimate when women are present. This finding holds for both men and women, no matter the decision reached. Even in cases in which all-male panels advance feminist policies, citizens report lower average levels of procedural fairness, institutional trust, and acquiescence as compared to the gender-balanced panel.

Our findings hold across citizens’ party identification, indicating that both Republicans and Democrats prefer gender-balanced panels.

Importantly, our results concerning the legitimacy of decision-making procedures also hold in policy areas that do not affect women’s rights. A separate group of respondents saw a news story in which an all-male or gender-balanced panel could raise or lower penalties for the mistreatment of farm animals. In this experiment, women’s presence does not affect attitudes about the substance of the decision. Yet, respondents report higher average levels of perceived fairness, institutional trust, and acquiescence when the decision is made by a gender-balanced panel. Again, citizens prefer inclusion.

Our findings demonstrate the profound importance of inclusion. Women’s presence in elected office is necessary in order for political institutions to be seen as wholly legitimate. Women’s descriptive representation matters across policy areas, and even when decisions expand women’s rights. Politicians should recognize that opprobrium against all-male panels is not just a social media trend, but a genuine grievance. Having only men as policymakers erodes citizens’ beliefs in the democratic legitimacy of their political institutions.

About the Authors: Amanda Clayton is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, Diana Z. O’Brien is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University, and Jennifer M. Piscopo is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Occidental College. “All Male Panels? Representation and Democratic Legitimacy (” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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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.