I was awarded my PhD, "The Influence of Gender Stereotypes on Politicians' Behaviour and Voter Attitudes", in Political Science from UCL in October 2022. My thesis was awarded the 2023 PSA McDougall Trust Prize for the best dissertation in elections, electoral systems, and representation. Interested in seeing the whole thesis? If so, you can find the final version of it here.
Focusing on the UK, my doctoral research explores questions of whether UK politicians behave in accordance with traditional gender stereotypes, how the pressure to do so shifts by context and over time, and whether voters in the UK uphold these stereotypes when they perceive and evaluate politicians' behaviour. A commonly held perception is that stereotypical assumptions inform both the way that politicians behave in office, and also form the basis of voters' judgements about this behaviour. By contrast, the papers in this thesis use creative and theoretically informed advanced quantitative designs to provide novel insights that not only are the descriptive validity of prominent gender stereotypes for how elites behave considerably lower than they were in the past, but also that voters may not punish women in the way common theories of gender stereotyping may have predicted. Documenting when behaviour and attitudes run counter to widely held assumptions is important because it may help to both undermine and potentially update outdated stereotypical prescriptions and thereby diminish the degree to which voters are biased in their judgements.
In the first paper, "No Longer Conforming to Stereotypes? Gender, Political Style, and Parliamentary Debate in the UK" (joint with Jack Blumenau, 2022, British Journal of Political Science), I evaluate whether stereotypes serve as accurate behavioural descriptions of the ways in which MPs argue about politics in the UK House of Commons. Research on political style suggests that where women make arguments that are more emotional, empathetic and positive, men use language that is more analytical, aggressive and complex. However, existing work does not consider how gendered patterns of style vary over time. I argue that pressures for women politicians to conform to stereotypically "feminine" styles have diminished in recent years. To test this argument, I describe novel quantitative text analysis approaches for measuring a diverse set of styles at scale in political speech data. Analysing debates between 1997 and 2019, I show that women MPs' debating styles have changed substantially over time, as they have increasingly adopted stylistic traits that are typically associated with "masculine" stereotypes of communication. These findings imply that prominent gender-based stereotypes of politicians' behaviour are significantly worse descriptors of empirical reality now than they were in the past.
In my second PhD paper, "Earning Their Stripes? Gender, Political Experience, and Policy Prioritisation in Parliamentary Debate" (forthcoming, Legislative Studies Quarterly), I assess how political experience affects the issues that men and women politicians prioritise. Gender stereotypical expectations dictate that women focus more on traditionally 'feminine' policy areas. While past findings broadly support this, they do not examine how policy priorities change with increased experience. Focusing on the UK, I argue that gender differences in the extent to which politicians raise issues traditionally associated with women will be most pronounced among junior politicians who lack experience in the eyes of the public and their colleagues, but will decline with increased political experience. To test this, I study parliamentary debates between 1997 and 2019 and leverage novel quantitative text approaches to measure politicians’ issue priorities. I find that, among junior politicians, women talk significantly more about 'feminine' issues, however this gap decreases markedly with increased seniority. These findings have important implications for the representation of women's voices and perspectives within the policy-making process.
In my final paper, "A Double Standard? Gender Bias in Voters' Perceptions of Political Arguments" (2022, British Journal of Political Science), I assess how the styles that politicians use influence how voters evaluate them, and whether this matters more for women than it does for men. Politicians regularly use anecdotal arguments, emotional appeals, and aggressive attacks when communicating with voters. However, that women politicians have been branded as "nasty", "inhuman", and "unfeminine" suggests these strategies may come at a price for some. I report on a novel survey experiment assessing whether voters are biased in their perceptions and evaluations of politicians' communication styles. By manipulating politician gender and argument style I assess, first, whether politicians incur backlash when violating gender-based stereotypes, and second, whether differential perceptions of the styles themselves explain this backlash. I find that style usage has important consequences for how voters evaluate politicians, but that this is not gendered. These results have important implications as they suggest that women politicians may not need to conform to stereotype-expected behaviours to receive positive voter evaluations.
Taken together, the papers in this thesis provide important theoretical arguments and empirical evidence concerning the temporal validity of gender stereotypes in informing elite and voter behaviour in the UK.