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In the annual State of the European Union debate, MEPs quizzed President von der Leyen on the Commission’s work in the past and its plans until the June 2024 elections (European Parliament via Wikimedia Commons)

Deep Dive: Girl Talk?

Looking at 24 democracies between 1987 and 2022, a new paper sets out to measure how "feminine" female politicians' speaking style is.

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: European Parliament

Women in politics are operating in a traditionally male-dominated field. But is it more effective to try to make people forget that you’re different, or to heighten the contradictions?

That’s the subject before authors Bruno Castanho Silva, Danielle Pullan, and Jens Wäckerle in their new paper, “Blending in or standing out? Gendered political communication in 24 democracies,” out now in the American Journal of Political Science.

The authors set out to consider “how these contradictory incentives” — namely, trying to fit in or stand out among the men — “influence female Members of Parliament (MPs) in 24 democracies between 1987 and 2022, applying machine learning to 6.8 million parliamentary speeches to measure how feminine is their speaking style.”

The authors looked at speech, specifically, because it’s present across politics and because it’s an expression: through language, politicians are telling their peers and would-be voters how to see them.

They looked at countries across Europe, North America, and Oceania. They used a machine learning approach to determine “how feminine or masculine the discourse of each MP is, based on their speeches, which allows us to see if and how female MPs change their speaking style, in relation to its genderedness, as their parliamentary careers progress.”

What Men and Women Say and Do

The authors felt that this was an improvement on previous methods, which relied on deductive ideas about what constitutes masculinity and femininity, explaining, “Rather than applying a set criteria of what constitutes masculinity and femininity in political debate, we observe these concepts and understand them as the expressions of men and women respectively.”

To put it another way, this study was based on data about what men and women say and do, not the authors’ own ideas about what it masculine or feminine. 

The authors found that, the longer women stay in office, the more they adapt a “masculine” style. Part of this was because, the longer they were in office, the likelier they were to speak on subjects traditionally considered “masculine,” like defense.

Yet, it was also the case that much of the change simply came from speaking in a more “masculine” way over time, which is to say that it held across speech subjects. Interestingly, the effect was most clear on women in socially progressive political parties. Women in more conservative parties kept a “feminine” speaking tone, suggesting that parties to the right of center hold onto gender norms more dearly.

The authors acknowledge that they have not factored intersectionality into their analysis, and that the literature that exists so far suggests that the theories that they considered may apply differently to different groups of women depending on what other identities they hold.

They also suggest that future research considers not only time spent in office, but power acquired, and whether being in more “powerful” positions leads women to adopt still more “masculine” speech.

Emily Tamkin

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