Women in Legislative Studies: Addressing Gender Gaps in a Political Science Subfield

by Eleanor Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, Rice University and Gisela Sin, University of Illinois

A recently published report found that women make up just 22 percent of the American Political Science Association’s Legislative Studies Section. This positions the section among the bottom three APSA sections in terms of gender parity, ranking above only Political Methodology (21% women) and tied with Presidents and Executive Politics. Why is women’s representation in the Legislative Studies Section (LSS) so low? Seeking to address this gender gap, Eleanor Powell (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Leslie Schwindt-Bayer (Rice University), and Gisela Sin (University of Illinois) are collaborating to explore causes and possible solutions.

Their work began in 2018 at a small dinner at the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting. In their words “We had never even met each other before and began talking about how few women were in legislative studies and what we could do about it. Those conversations continued on a near-weekly basis via Skype and led us to this new initiative.”

They identified three key goals: 1) increasing the number of women in the Legislative Studies Section, 2) increasing the number of women that identify as studying legislatures, and 3) providing support to female legislative scholars and facilitating networking with other women (and men) in the section. They developed a set of strategies to start moving toward these goals and sought and received funding for the initiative from various sources, including the APSA Centennial Center William Steiger Fund, the National Science Foundation, LSS, Legislative Studies Quarterly, and the Rice University Creative Ventures Fund.

Drawing on their research expertise, they began their work with data collection. Their 2019 survey sampled a pool of women studying legislatures to learn more about how they identify their field of study, whether they identify as legislative scholars, and their perceptions of the Legislative Studies Section.

In addition to this survey, the researchers hosted a social hour for women in legislative studies during the APSA 2019 Annual Meeting. With nearly 75 women in attendance, it was an opportunity for women in the section and studying legislatures to get to know one another. Immediately following the social hour, 50 women attended the Legislative Studies Section business meeting. While data does not exist about women’s presence at past meetings, this was anecdotally observed as a significant increase from previous years.

” “The September workshop was fabulous and the enthusiasm for the Women in Legislative Studies initiative has been really motivating. We are so pleased to be able to bring together women in the field and help them make connections and build their networks.””.

A virtual workshop the next year brought together 25 women who study legislatures (including Congress, state legislatures, and comparative legislatures) to learn more about the survey results, brainstorm solutions to the underrepresentation of women in legislative studies and to lay out implementation plans for some of those solutions. The workshop, led by Powell, Schwindt-Bayer and Sin, witnessed the birth of Women in Legislative Studies (WiLS). One of many wonderful ideas to come out of the fall 2020 workshop, WiLS now has a website (www.womeninlegislativestudies.org), a Twitter handle @W_inLS, and a Google Groups listserve (registration available on WiLS webpage). The group construes legislatures broadly (Congress, comparative, subnational, and international legislatures) and encourages all women and non-binary scholars interested in legislative politics to get involved.

As Powell, Schwindt-Bayer and Sin observed, “The September workshop was fabulous and the enthusiasm for the Women in Legislative Studies initiative has been really motivating. We are so pleased to be able to bring together women in the field and help them make connections and build their networks.”

Starting in spring 2021, the initiative will host a monthly research seminar for women scholars to present research on legislative politics, a monthly professional development workshop on topics relevant to women studying legislatures and writing groups for those interested in carving out regular writing time. When in-person events resume, Women in Legislative Studies plans to host an annual research conference and will continue holding an APSA reception/social hour for women studying legislatures.


For more information on these upcoming events or about Women in Legislative Studies more generally, please visit the website at www.womeninlegislativestudies.org or email womeninlegisaltivestudies@gmail.com.


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