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Christine Cheng has recently co-published an article with Margit Tavits in Political Research Quarterly  arguing that  female party presidents in Canada are more likely to nominate female party candidates. The research is based on original data from Canada’s 2004 and 2006 federal elections.

When the party’s gatekeeper or president is female, the candidate is also six percent more likely to be a woman. The effect is small, but statistically significant, making it important to consider in policies aimed at increasing female representation in politics. Namely, beyond parties’ formal rules to encourage female participation, informal interactions matter. Having more women in top political posts can be just as effective for attracting women to politics as formal party regulations.

Another important finding from their research, however, which has attracted less media attention, is that having a history of female candidates in a given district has a substantial effect on the party’s probability to nominate a female candidate in the future. In other words, a record of woman-friendliness matters. Christine Cheng notes both in the article and in a personal interview that this finding is particularly interesting and deserves more in-depth exploration.

District ideology, on the other hand, does not have an effect on the selection of female candidates. This means that a more right-wing district is not necessarily going to be less welcoming to female candidates. The probability of female candidates does vary by party though. Particularly, the authors found a difference in parties that have affirmative action policies and those that do not, with the former more likely support female candidates.

When asked whether this study could be replicated in other countries, Dr Cheng is both cautious and enthusiastic. The difficulty in conducting such studies in other countries lies in the access to data. It is challenging to identify party gatekeepers in the past elections in the United States, for instance, since it is unclear whether the parties have maintained a centralised record-keeping system. Even if they did, it is unclear whether they would allow access to it. On the other hand, new research approaches such as social network analysis that examine how women enter politics, open up new avenues for research. Moreover the principles of this type of gatekeeper research can be applied to other sectors beyond politics, such as boards of directors, and also to other minority groups, such as immigrants and people of color.

It remains to be seen whether Canadian policymakers will make use of these findings. A number of articles in Canadian media about Dr Cheng’s findings, however, shows there is public interest in this issue. To observe a change in practice, however, would require another study.

For a full article, please see: Christine Cheng and Margit Tavits, “Informal Influences in Selecting Female Political Candidates,” Political Research Quarterly 64 (2) 2011, pp. 460-471.

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