Lauren Wright, Princeton University: Visible Representation: How Spotlighting Women in Government Can Inflate Perceptions of Gender Equity

Feb 10, 2022, 12:00 pm1:20 pm
300 Wallace Hall
Faculty, fellows, and graduate students only
Event Description


Women’s presence in the bureaucracy has risen in recent decades, a trend often trumpeted by presidents, but women remain underrepresented. How does elite rhetoric emphasizing women’s presence in government affect perceptions that government will be responsive to women? Using original panel data on federal employee gender between 1973-2020, and drawing on elite interviews, we propose a theory of visible representation: political communications spotlighting a group’s presence in government, even a small number, signals that government has prioritized the group’s welfare—even in the absence of any gains in representation. In pre-registered and replicated experiments, we show presenting statistics on federal agencies’ gender compositions in terms of women’s job shares (e.g., 20% of an agency’s jobs are “held by women”) rather than logically equivalent information emphasizing men (e.g., 80% “held by men”) increases beliefs that government represents women’s interests. Elites can impart the impression of descriptive representation even in its relative absence.

Center for the Study of Democratic Politics (CSDP)