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Do politics matter? Women in Swedish local elected assemblies 1970–2010 and gender equality in outcomes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 May 2011

Lena Wängnerud*
Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
Anders Sundell
Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden


A substantial number of studies support the notion that having a high number of women in elected office helps strengthen the position of women in society. However, some of the most cited studies rely on questionnaires asking elected representatives about their attitudes and priorities, thus focusing on the input side of the political system. The closer one gets to outcomes in citizens’ everyday lives, the fewer empirical findings there are to report. In this study, we attempt to explain contemporary variations in gender equality at the sub-national level in Sweden. We use six indicators to capture a broad spectrum of everyday life situations. The overall finding is that having a high number of women elected does affect conditions for women citizens, making them more equal to men in terms of factors such as income levels, full-time vs. part-time employment, and distribution of parental leave between mothers and fathers, even when controlling for party ideology and modernization at the municipal level. No effect was found, however, on factors such as unemployment, poor health, and poverty among women. Thus, the politics of presence theory (Phillips, 1995), which emphasizes the importance of having a high number of women elected, does exert an effect, but the effect needs to be specified. For some dimensions of gender equality, the driving forces of change have more to do with general transformations of society than the equal distribution of women and men in elected assemblies. We thoroughly discuss measurement challenges since there is no accepted or straightforward way of testing the politics of presence theory. We challenge the conventional wisdom of using indexes to capture the network of circumstances that determines the relationship between women and men in society; aggregating several factors undermines the possibility of building fine-tuned understandings of the operative mechanisms.

Research Article
Copyright © European Consortium for Political Research 2011

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