In most contemporary societies there are no longer any formal barriers to women’s participation in politics and public life, but women continue to be under-represented in positions of political leadership and decision making.
There is a widespread belief that this is partly because women are disadvantaged by the competitive and frequently uncivil style of speech which dominates much political discourse, and which is at odds with their own preference for a speech style characterised by cooperation and the avoidance of conflict.
The idea of a distinctive ‘female style’ here may be seen through a deficit lens, as a handicap they must overcome, or it may be celebrated for ‘setting new standards’ of democratic debate. But in either case what is being represented is an ideological construct: widespread beliefs about women’s more cooperative and civil political discourse that are not substantiated by the evidence of research.
A more ‘civilised’ political style?
Women’s more ‘civilised’ political style became a salient topic of discussion in Britain in 1997, when the ‘New’ Labour Party brought a record number of women MPs (119) to Westminster. Numerous commentators predicted that this influx of women would change the culture of the House of Commons for the better. By 2015, when three of the parties contesting the UK general election were led by women, an analysis of the campaign press coverage revealed that ‘women speaking differently’ had been a prominent theme. Even the right-wing Telegraph observed that the women’s ‘thoughtful and measured contributions’ had ‘brought a certain dignity to an occasion that could have descended into chaos and rancour’.
Women’s lower tolerance for political incivility would also be noted in media commentary on the 2016 EU referendum, and during the Covid-19 pandemic the claim has repeatedly been made that women leaders have fared better due to their empathetic style of communication.
That women prefer the language of ‘empathy, understanding and co-operation’ is treated as uncontroversial. It is also suggested that this preference is a direct reflex of gender, uniting women regardless of their other ideological commitments. But how far is this representation of women’s difference grounded in observable reality?
An analysis of participants’ linguistic performance during the 2015 UK general election campaign uncovered significant discrepancies between the actual behaviour of the women party leaders – Natalie Bennet, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood – and the way their behaviour was described in press coverage.
First, it was not possible to identify a set of linguistic features or strategies which consistently distinguished the men as a group from the women as a group. In both groups, individual differences were much more striking. Second, the analysis did not support the perception that the women avoided such ‘uncivil’ tactics as challenging, insulting, or interrupting.
Only one of the claims was confirmed by empirical analysis: they did generally refrain from using adversarial tactics towards each other. However, the way this was commonly interpreted overlooks an alternative explanation of their behaviour as the result of political calculation: as leaders of parties contesting seats in different nations in the UK, the three women had nothing to gain by attacking one another, as they were all fighting the election on a similar platform of opposition to the austerity policies of the coalition government.
Other studies of political discourse have found that women do not differ significantly from men in their use of adversarial tactics. In the US, for instance, studies of Senate and gubernatorial races have found male and female candidates are equally likely to make negative attacks on opponents. In research on the UK’s legislative assemblies, Sylvia Shaw found that although women MPs she interviewed considered their style of discourse to be less competitive and more collaborative than the male norm, their actual performance in House of Commons debates did not entirely match their self-reports.
Speech style is not a fixed attribute that individuals carry with them into every situation: it is shaped by the norms and interpersonal dynamics of the context in which discourse is produced. For that reason, it cannot be assumed that opening up an institution to a previously under-represented group will automatically change its discourse norms. Newcomers are likely to converge towards the style which is expected, solicited and valued in that context. The perception of female politicians as ‘different’ is, at the very least, an oversimplification, and at the extreme it is an outright misrepresentation.
The unequal burden of civility
Today, women are no longer told they should leave the distasteful business of wielding power to men, but they could easily get the impression that their participation is valued less for the contribution they might make as individuals, and more for the civilising influence it is imagined they will collectively exert.
We talk about a female ‘preference’ for civility, but civility is also a female obligation. By meeting gendered expectations, women may avoid being sanctioned, and they may even be praised. But those benefits are largely symbolic, whereas the costs are material. Women who do not interrupt, nor resist when they are interrupted, will end up with a smaller share of the available speaking time, and thus less influence on the debate or the discussion; they will consequently appear less politically effective than the men who are permitted to dominate.
Discourses which valorise women’s speech style are not, in practice, as helpful to women in politics as they might appear. Even positive stereotypes are limiting: they set up normative expectations which at least some members of the group they apply to will be unable or unwilling to meet. But there is an additional problem. Democratic discourse is not and cannot be uniformly ‘civil’. Requiring women, but not men, to model a ‘kinder, gentler’ politics, and sanctioning them more harshly than men for deviations from that norm, means relegating women to the margins, while men continue to occupy the centre.
A longer version of this article was first published in the Political Quarterly journal.