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A record number of women are serving in Congress. That’s good news for constituents.

On average, female representatives are more effective — and more likely to respond to constituent requests.

/ Managing Editor - January 25, 2021

A record number of women are serving in the 117th Congress: at least 118 in the U.S. House and 24 in the U.S. Senate. That’s in part because the Republican delegation will include 29 women in the House and eight women in the Senate, topping the previous record of 30 Republican women in Congress set in 2006.

Does electing women legislators have consequences for voters? Research suggests that it does. Studies at both the state and federal levels find that women are more active and productive than their male counterparts on a variety of policy-related activities: They sponsor more legislation, are more effective at moving bills through the legislative process and bring more money to their districts.

But our recent study shows that women stand out in another area as well: constituent service.

Here’s how we did our research

We conducted an audit study in March 2016 of 6,000 U.S. state legislators to see whether female legislators were more responsive to their constituents than their male counterparts. We obtained the email addresses of nearly all state legislators who were in office at that time through the state legislature websites of all 50 states. We waited for 30 days to see if they replied and then coded whether they responded to our email and what kind of information they provided. Some state legislatures have more women than others; our sample of nearly all state legislators in office at that time thus reflects the gender imbalance in each legislature because we sought to include the full sample of male and female legislators where possible.

We sent each legislator a simple request about how to register to vote. The text in our email was very similar to what previous studies of legislator responsiveness have used. The email included a fictitious name of someone writing that he or she was trying to figure out how to vote for the upcoming election. The individual asked who they should call to register. As has happened in earlier research, we treated responses from either the legislator or a staff member as equivalent. However, we also coded whether the response came from the legislator or a member of their staff. The results are the same when we exclude staff responses and when we look only at state legislatures with no staff at all. In other words, staff responses are not the reason behind the patterns we uncovered.

We found that women legislators were more likely to respond to constituent requests than their male counterparts. The likelihood that women legislators replied to our email was 59 percent, compared to 55 percent for men. We also found that women legislators were more likely to answer helpfully: 40 percent of women provided details on how to register while only 34 percent of men did. Both of these differences are statistically significant.

What might explain these results? Political scientists Sarah Anzia and Christopher Berry have suggested that only the most ambitious or qualified women run for office due to perceived or actual gender discrimination in elections. And a survey of male and female potential candidates working in the typical pathways to office demonstrated that nearly 90 percent of the women believe there is bias against women in elections. Our results are consistent with Anzia and Berry’s research suggesting that women may perceive the barriers to their election as especially high.

Representation beyond policy outcomes

Our findings add to the evidence that having more women in elected office influences the quality of representation. Electing a historic number of women to the 117th Congress not only reduces the gender gap in officeholders but will probably change how voters interact with their members of Congress as well.

Bailey K. Sanders received her PhD in political science from Duke University and is pursuing a JD at Duke University School of Law.

Danielle M. Thomsen (@dmariethomsen) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).