Female MPs are roughly 20% more vocal in parliamentary debates where the cabinet minister is female than when the responsible minister is male, finds a new study by UCL.
The research, published in the British Journal of Political Science, is the first to consider whether female leadership affects the processes or outcomes of political debate.
The study analysed 14,320 debates and almost half a million speeches between 1997 and 2017, covering a wide range of parliamentary business, including Ministerial Question Time and substantive motions.
The new research shows that the presence of female political leaders amplifies the voice of other women in politics, promotes increased participation and influences other women in policy making.
Study author, Dr Jack Blumenau (UCL Political Science) comments: "The results show that female leadership has important effects on the experiences of female MPs in political debate. Not only is it vital for participation, it also matters for ensuring that the interests of women are represented in the policy process and that the issues female MPs raise are worthy of governmental concern."
Female cabinet ministers also increase the influence of backbenchers, showing that female ministers are significantly more responsive than their male counterparts to the speeches of female backbenchers.
While women are more influential in debates when their female colleagues are elevated to high office (cabinet posts, committee chairs and other high profile legislative offices), male influence in debate remains constant regardless of minister gender. In no case does the appointment of a female minister decrease the participation of other women.
Dr Blumenau comments: "One interpretation of the results is that the appointment of a female cabinet minister creates a role model effect in a legislative setting. It is plausible that, given women are underrepresented in cabinet positions in the UK, the women who are promoted are seen as exemplars of success, and their presence acts as a motivation and inspiration for their junior colleagues."
"At the same time, in the UK female politicians employ a distinct form of language and debating style that is more cooperative, approachable and practical than that of their male colleagues. This suggests the effects that such leaders have on other women may in part be driven by the ways in which they interact with MPs during political exchanges."
The effect of female leaders on junior colleagues is most noticeable in debates relating to the ministries of Trade and Industry, Home, Culture, Media & Sport and International Development.
The research also shows that gender-based inequalities are present in British political debate: in the period the study was conducted, women occupied approximately one-fifth of the seats in parliament, however they accounted for only one-tenth of the speaking time in a typical parliamentary debate.
Globally, the UK is ranked 39th in terms of its ratio of women in parliament, behind countries such as Serbia, Tunisia and South Africa.
While a record number of women MPs were elected to the House of Commons following the recent general election, they are still outnumbered. Some 220 women won seats in the 2019 poll, 12 more than two years ago.
The findings highlight the importance of representation in parliament, and the research could be applied to understanding whether the same holds for other under-represented groups.
Dr Blumenau concludes: "Women are systematically under-represented in leadership positions and are often appointed to leadership roles in unfavourable circumstances, where they tend to be appointed to low-prestige or ’feminine’ portfolios."
"By breaking with historical patterns, the appointment of women to powerful cabinet positions helps to reverse outdated ideas and create a level playing field for women to be heard."