Are Backbenchers’ Interventions Gendered?

Article 4 / 13 , Vol 43 No 4 (Winter)

Are Backbenchers’ Interventions Gendered?

When women backbenchers participate in Question Period and Private Members’ Business, are their interventions gendered? Are they more likely than men to address stereotypically feminine issues and less likely to address stereotypically masculine issues? In this article, the authors investigate these questions by analyzing all of the interventions in Question Period and Private Members’ Business by backbenchers in the 42nd Parliament between September 16 and December 13, 2018. Using software to code the interventions, they determined that the gendered division of labour on stereotypically feminine issues was much more evident in Question Period than Private Members’ Business. While women were no less likely than men to address stereotypically masculine issues, they were more likely than men to intervene on matters considered stereotypically feminine. The authors conclude that judging what these patterns of gendered interventions mean for our political culture and institutions depends on a person’s perspective.

Introduction

Even as more women are elected to parliaments around the world, legislatures may remain gendered institutions.1 There is ample evidence that women are more likely than men to serve on parliamentary committees that deal with stereotypically feminine issues, such as health, social welfare and education, and less likely to be on committees that deal with stereotypically masculine issues, such as the economy, finance and defence.2 There is also evidence that they deliver fewer speeches in parliament than men.3 In this article, we look at another form of gendering and ask whether women backbenchers in Canada’s Parliament are more likely than the men to address stereotypically feminine issues and less likely to address stereotypically masculine issues when they intervene in Question Period and Private Members’ Business.

Gender and Speech-Making

There are a number of reasons to expect that backbenchers’ interventions in these venues will be gendered. First, there are career incentives. Numerous studies have shown that voters are apt to attribute issue competencies on the basis of a politician’s gender.4 Women are assumed to be more competent in dealing with stereotypically feminine issues whereas men are presumed to have greater competence when it comes to stereotypically masculine issues. Accordingly, the party leadership may have a strategic incentive to encourage women members to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues in more public arenas in order to demonstrate the party’s competence in handling these issues. Conversely, women members may be less likely to be selected to intervene on stereotypically masculine issues on which they may be presumed to have less competence. Given the degree of party discipline in Canada’s Parliament, women backbenchers have strong incentives to comply with the wishes of the party leadership. If they value career advancement, they will not want to risk possible sanctioning or being overlooked when it comes to choosing backbenchers to serve in key positions. As a former MP has explained, “A loyal MP can be made a committee chair, House leader, a parliamentary secretary or a Cabinet minister. Insubordinate MPs can be relegated to the backbenches, refused authorization to travel abroad, thrown out of caucus or barred from running in the next election.”5

We should not assume, though, that the women necessarily need either carrots or sticks to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues. Rather than being the result of pressure from the party leadership, it could be a matter of choice. The women may feel that they have a duty to speak on issues that are thought to be of particular concern to women. These issues extend beyond what are conventionally considered “women’s issues” (such as reproductive choice, violence against women and sexual harassment) to include stereotypically feminine issues such as health, social welfare and education. Women may even fear electoral punishment if they fail to live up to constituents’ expectations regarding the issue competencies and priorities of women politicians.6 They may also be more apt to prioritize these issues because they are more likely than the men to have come to politics from fields such as health care, social work and education. Gendered socialization and life experiences may also play a role.7

It is possible, of course, that backbenchers’ interventions in Question Period and Private Members’ Business are not gendered. Women backbenchers may be as likely as the men to address stereotypically masculine issues, just as the men may be as likely as the women to raise stereotypically feminine issues.8 The women may face a difficult trade-off. To advance in their parliamentary careers, they also need to get re-elected. This may give them an incentive to address stereotypically masculine issues in order to counter constituents’ stereotypical assumptions about women politicians’ issue competencies that might frustrate their chances of re-election. For their part, men have an incentive to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues, given that half of their constituents will be women. Indeed, issues such as health, education and social welfare do not just affect women; their male constituents may care about these issues, too.

This may explain why studies of legislative speech-making have reported mixed results. For example, a study of seven European parliaments found that women MPs in the Nordic countries gave fewer speeches on stereotypically masculine issues than the men, even though these countries have more gender-balanced parliaments than other post-industrial democracies.9 However, there was little or no difference in the case of the Czech, Estonian, German and Irish parliaments. Moreover, even in the three Nordic parliaments, the men gave as many speeches as the women on stereotypically feminine issues. On the other hand, an analysis of debates on the second reading of bills in the British House of Commons found that women MPs were more likely than the men to participate in debates on health care (a stereotypically feminine issue), though they were just as likely as the men to take part in debates on finance bills (a stereotypically masculine issue).10

Our Study

To see whether Canadian backbenchers’ interventions are gendered, we have analyzed all of the interventions in Question Period and Private Members’ Business in the 42nd Parliament between September 16 and December 13, 2018. We only consider interventions by backbenchers. Excluding cabinet ministers, opposition critics, party leaders, the Speaker and other presiding officers leaves us with 197 MPs. Forty-one (20.8 percent) were women and 156 (79.2 per cent) were men. There were 47 Conservative MPs, 127 Liberal MPs, 14 NDP MPs, and 9 Bloc Québécois MPs.

We have chosen to look at both Question Period and Private Members’ Business because it enables us to get some leverage on the question of whether women backbenchers are more likely to address stereotypically feminine issues by choice or because they are complying with the wishes of the party leadership. There are at least two reasons to expect interventions in Question Period to be more gendered than interventions in Private Members’ Business. First, Question Period is a public arena that has taken on new significance in an era of permanent campaigning: “Both the nature of QP itself and media coverage of it indicate that it has become a made-for-media event.”11 Accordingly, if a party wants to highlight its competence in dealing with stereotypically feminine issues, the party leadership has strong incentives to select women MPs to ask questions on these topics. Question Period, after all, is a forum where symbolism often trumps substance.12 Second, and relatedly, Question Period is subject to much more partisan control than Private Members’ Business. Indeed, party whips typically provide the Speaker with lists of MPs and the suggested order of recognition.13 Party discipline is such that MPs who value career advancement will be willing “to engage in any form of behaviour requested or deemed valuable for the party leader.”14

This is not to say that Private Members’ Business is unimportant. On the contrary, MPs have experienced greater success in getting their legislation passed and their participation in Private Members’ Business can have an indirect effect on government policy.15 Similarly, it is not the case that Private Members’ Business is free of the constraints of party discipline. Indeed, there is evidence that parties are exercising greater control over this arena.16 Nonetheless, Private Members’ Business remains less subject to party discipline than Question Period. Accordingly, we can expect backbenchers’ interventions to be more likely to reflect their own preferences in the former than in the latter.

To see whether there were differences in the types of issues addressed by the women and the men, we developed a classification of stereotypically masculine, stereotypically feminine, and gender-neutral issues. Stereotypically masculine issues include defence, military, crime, national security, finance, the economy, foreign affairs, foreign trade, and agriculture. Stereotypically feminine issues include culture, education, children/youth, family, ageing/elderly, health, welfare, poverty, and equality. Note that “women’s issues,” such as abortion and sexual violence, are not classified as being stereotypically feminine because they might reasonably be assigned to women due to their content. The neutral category includes issues such as science and technology, the environment, sports, labour, and immigration.

We used the Lexicoder software (www.lexicoder.com) to classify the interventions. For example, an intervention that included words such as “tariff” and “export” would be classified under “foreign trade,” a stereotypically masculine issue, while an intervention containing words such as “hospital” and “cancer” would be classified as relating to health, a stereotypically feminine issue.17 We accessed transcripts of every intervention in Question Period and Private Members’ Business in fall 2018 using the Our Commons website ((https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/house/latest/hansard).

Question Period

Over the period studied, backbench MPs intervened a total of 722 times in Question Period. These interventions were much more likely to address stereotypically masculine issues than stereotypically feminine issues. Forty-eight per cent of these interventions related to stereotypically masculine issues while only 14 percent dealt with stereotypically feminine issues; the remainder addressing gender-neutral issues. Relative to their numbers, the women made more interventions overall than the men. Women comprised only 21 per cent of backbenchers but accounted for 26 per cent of the interventions. On average, they intervened 4.6 times, compared with 3.4 times for the men.

The women were, if anything, a little more likely than the men to intervene when the issue at hand was stereotypically masculine: the average for the women was 1.8, compared with 1.7 for the men, though more of the men’s total interventions (50 per cent) dealt with stereotypically masculine issues than the women’s (40 per cent). Interventions on stereotypically feminine issues were much more clearly gendered: on average, women backbenchers made 1.3 interventions, compared with a mere 0.3 for the men. Similarly, 28 per cent of the women’s total interventions but only 10 per cent of the men’s interventions addressed stereotypically feminine issues. Moreover, the men were much less likely to address stereotypically feminine issues than the women were to address stereotypically masculine issues. Clearly, then, women backbenchers were more likely than the men to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues. That said, the women were still more likely to address stereotypically masculine issues than stereotypically feminine issues. The finding that women backbenchers were more likely than the men to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues holds, even when we take account of other factors such as party affiliation, length of time in Parliament and belonging to a visible minority.18

Interestingly, this finding also holds when we look at each party’s backbenchers separately. The Conservatives were facing a “woman problem”: polling data had indicated that women (25 per cent) were much less likely than men (33 per cent) to vote Conservative in the 2015 election.19 Accordingly, the party may have wanted its women backbenchers to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues in order to project a woman-friendly image. There were only five Conservative women backbenchers in the 42nd Parliament so we have to be cautious about drawing conclusions. Nonetheless, it is striking that fully 95 per cent of the Conservative men did not make a single intervention addressing stereotypically feminine issues. Meanwhile, three of the five women intervened on these issues. We face a similar numbers problem with the NDP. There were only three NDP women backbenchers. Given the party’s policy platform, we might have expected NDP backbenchers to be equally likely to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues regardless of their gender, but this was clearly not the case. Nine of the 11 NDP men did not make even one intervention on these issues whereas all three women did address these issues in their interventions. Meanwhile, more than twice as many Liberal women (65 per cent) as Liberal men (28 per cent) intervened on stereotypically feminine issues. There were too few Bloc MPs to draw any conclusions. Again, there is little to suggest that the women backbenchers were less likely than the men to intervene on stereotypically masculine issues. Indeed, Liberal women (36 per cent) were more likely than Liberal men (26 per cent) to address these issues and all five Conservative women addressed these issues, compared with only half of the men.

Private Members’ Business

Backbenchers are assumed to enjoy more autonomy when it comes to Private Members’ Business. If women were making more interventions on stereotypically feminine issues than the men in this venue, it would suggest that the pattern observed in Question Period reflects women’s priorities and not simply pressure from the party leadership. To investigate this possibility, we have conducted a parallel analysis of interventions in Private Members’ Business.

Backbench MPs intervened 222 times in this venue. Relative to their overall numbers, women backbenchers were almost as likely as the men to intervene in Private Members’ Business, with the women accounting for 19 per cent of the total interventions and the men accounting for 81 per cent. On average, women backbenchers made 1.1 interventions, while the average for the men was 1.2. Interventions in Private Members’ Business were much more likely than interventions in Question Period to address stereotypically feminine issues (43 per cent) and much less likely to deal with stereotypically masculine issues (13 per cent).

On average, women backbenchers intervened 0.63 times on stereotypically feminine issues, whereas the average for the men was 0.44. The difference was even smaller when it came to stereotypically masculine issues: the men’s average was 0.16, compared with the women’s average of 0.10. However, relative to their total interventions, the women were much more likely than the men to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues: 63 per cent of the women’s interventions in Private Members’ Business addressed stereotypically feminine issues, compared with only 38 per cent of the men’s. Meanwhile, 14 per cent of the men’s interventions but only nine per cent of the women’s related to stereotypically masculine issues.

The tendency for women to intervene more frequently than the men on stereotypically feminine issues clearly appears to be weaker in Private Members’ Business than in Question Period. This fits with the expectation that interventions in this arena would be less gendered. However, the fact that more of the women’s interventions related to stereotypically feminine issues even in a venue that is less subject to party discipline suggests that women backbenchers were not simply succumbing to pressure from their parties to speak up on these issues during Question Period.

When we break the results down by party, we see once again that Liberal women (45 per cent) were more likely than Liberal men (29 per cent) to address stereotypically feminine issues but the gender imbalance is smaller than it was in the case of Question Period. Note, too, that the women were less likely to address these issues in Private Members’ Business than in Question Period, raising the possibility that they may face some pressure to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues in Question Period. Conservative backbenchers were much less likely than their Liberal colleagues to address these issues. Indeed, none of the Conservative women made an intervention on stereotypically feminine issues. Surprisingly, given the party’s presumed ownership of issues such as health care and social welfare, only nine per cent of NDP men’s interventions dealt with stereotypically feminine issues, though two of the three women did address these issues. There was little difference across the parties when it came to stereotypically masculine issues and little in the way of gender differences.

Concluding Discussion

We chose to look at interventions in Question Period and Private Members’ Business in order to gain more insight into the role of gender in the day-to-day operation of Canada’s Parliament. The motivating question was the extent to which Parliament could be characterized as being a gendered institution. Based on the findings presented here, the answer must necessarily be qualified. On the one hand, there was little consistent evidence that women backbenchers were less likely than the men to address stereotypically masculine issues, such as finance, the economy and the military. Moreover, even in Question Period, the women were more likely to address stereotypically masculine than stereotypically feminine issues. On the other hand, in Question Period and Private Members’ Business, the women were more likely than the men to intervene on stereotypically feminine issues, such as health, education and social welfare.

Comparing backbenchers’ interventions in Question Period and Private Members’ Business proved to be revealing. The gendered division of labour on stereotypically feminine issues was much more evident in the former than in the latter. A plausible explanation is that parties have an incentive to capitalize on voters’ gendered perceptions of politicians’ issue competencies by assigning their women backbench MPs to address issues that are stereotypically associated with their gender in a venue that typically attracts a good deal of media attention. The newsworthiness of Question Period also means that backbenchers’ behaviour is much more subject to party discipline in this arena.

Even in the case of Private Members’ Business, though, where backbenchers’ behaviour is less constrained, the women were more likely than the men to address stereotypically feminine issues. The gender difference was smaller, but it was non-negligible, suggesting that the women were not simply toeing the party line when they intervened on these issues during Question Period. Whether their interventions reflected gendered socialization, life experiences, a sense of duty to speak to issues believed to be of particular importance to women or concerns about re-election, we cannot say, but it is likely that some mix of these considerations played a role.

There are, of course, other parliamentary venues that may show greater—or lesser—evidence of gendering. Future studies need to look at committee assignments, participation in debates on second readings and other interventions in the House in order to gain a fuller sense of the extent to which Canada’s parliament may be a gendered institution. How we judge the patterns observed in Question Period and Private Members’ Business depends very much on perspective. On the one hand, it could be considered a good thing that women backbenchers are raising issues believed to be of greater concern to women than to men. On the other hand, there is the risk of perpetuating gendered perceptions of the competencies of women politicians.

Notes

1 Catherine Bolzendahl. “Legislatures as gendered organizations: Challenges and opportunities for women’s empowerment as political elites.” In Amy C. Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl and Farida Jalalzai (eds.) Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment across the Globe: Strategies, Challenges and Future Research London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 165-186

2 Ibid.

3 Hanna Bäck and Marc Debus. Political Parties, Parliaments and Legislative Speechmaking. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

4 See, for example, Erin C. Cassese and Mirya R. Holman. “Party and gender stereotypes in campaign attacks.” Political Behavior 40, 2018: 785-807.

5 Monique Guay. “Party discipline, representation of voters and personal beliefs.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 25(1), 2002: 7-9.

6 Ibid.

7 Manon Tremblay. “Do female MPs substantively represent women? A study of legislative behaviour in Canada’s 35th Parliament.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 31 (3), 1998: 435–65.

8 Amanda Clayton, Cecilia Josefsson and Vibeke Wang. “Quotas and women’s substantive representation: Evidence from a content analysis of Ugandan plenary debates.” Politics & Gender 13(2), 2017: 276-304

9 Bäck and Debus.

10 Ana Catalano. “Women acting for women? An analysis of gender and debate participation in the British House of Commons 2005-2007.” Politics & Gender 5, 2009: 79–98.

11 Kelly Blidook. “Symbol vs. substance: Theatre, political career paths, and parliamentary behaviour in Canada.” Canadian Study of Parliament Group, 2010, 2. http://cspg-gcep.ca/pdf/KBlidook_Final-e.pdf

12 Ibid.

13 Marc Bosc and André Gagnon. House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Third Edition, 2017. https://www.ourcommons.ca/About/ProcedureAndPractice3rdEdition/ch_11_1-e.html

14 Blidook, 9.

15 Kelly Blidook. “Exploring the role of ‘legislators’ in Canada: Do Members of Parliament influence policy?” The Journal of Legislative Studies 16(1), 2010: 32-56.

16 Evan Sotiropoulos. “Private members’ Bills in recent minority and majority parliaments.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 34(3), 2011.

17 A list of the issues and the words associated with those issues is available from the authors.

18 In order to take account of other factors that might explain the gender difference, we regressed the number of interventions on stereotypically feminine issues on gender, party affiliation, belonging to a visible minority, number of years as an MP and total number of interventions on any issue.

19 David Coletto. “The path to 2019: Women and the Liberal vote.” Abacusdata, 2018. https://abacusdata.ca/womenandtheliberalvote/