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Does Descriptive Representation Facilitate Women's Distinctive Voice? How Gender Composition and Decision Rules Affect Deliberation


  • The study could not have been completed without the research assistants who oversaw the experimental sessions, especially Lisa Argyle and Dan Myers. For comments and suggestions on previous versions, we thank the anonymous reviewers, Chris Achen, Pat Egan, Susan Fiske, Martin Gilens, Cindy Kam, Yanna Krupnikov, Amy Lerman, Neil Malhotra, Dan Nielson, Jessica Preece, Markus Prior, Matt Tokeshi, and participants at the CSDP and BYU faculty research seminars. The first two authors are the co-principal investigators of the larger project, but all three authors contributed substantially to this article. Data used in this study can be obtained for purposes of replication on the AJPS Data Archive on Dataverse. For financial support, we thank Brigham Young University, Princeton University, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.


Does low descriptive representation inhibit substantive representation for women in deliberating groups? We address this question and go beyond to ask if the effects of descriptive representation also depend on decision rule. We conducted an experiment on distributive decisions, randomizing the group's gender composition and decision rule, including many groups, and linking individuals’ predeliberation attitudes to their speech and to postdeliberation decisions. Women's descriptive representation does produce substantive representation, but primarily under majority rule—when women are many, they are more likely to voice women's distinctive concerns about children, family, the poor, and the needy, and less likely to voice men's distinctive concerns. Men's references shift similarly with women's numerical status. These effects are associated with group decisions that are more generous to the poor. Unanimous rule protects women in the numerical minority, mitigating some of the negative effects of low descriptive representation. Descriptive representation matters, but in interaction with the decision rule.