GASXXX10.1177/0891243214542429GENDER & SOCIETY / Month XXXXBolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS
Opportunities and expectations
The Gendered Organization of Legislative
Committees in Germany, Sweden,
and the United States
University of California Irvine, USA
As men and women increasingly share access to state power, there has been a question of
whether women’s rising descriptive representation leads to substantive change, and a sizable body of literature suggests it does. As a mechanism for this effect, I theorize legislatures as gendered organizations that build gender into their institutional operation, as
enmeshed in legislative committee systems. Using case studies of Germany, Sweden, and
the United States, I examine 40 years of data collected on legislative committees and
memberships. This study reveals some similarities, where all committee systems emphasize
gender-typed roles, particularly female legislators’ greater segregation into social issue
committees. Yet, gender is constructed differentially across these organizations, and the
nations vary in the gender structure of their committee systems, degree of gender segregation and typing, and gendered relations of power and prestige. Implications for integrating
theories of gender as an institution, gendered organizations, and feminist institutionalism
Keywords: gender; institutions; organizations; legislative committees; comparative
Author’s Note: The author thanks Clem Brooks, Andrew Penner, Cynthia Feliciano,
Joy Pixley, Nina Bandelj, Kristin Turney, Thomas Janoski, and the Indiana University
Politics, Economic, and Culture colloquium for helpful comments and the UCI Center for
Organizational Research and the UCI Center for the Study of Democracy for funding in
support of this research. Special thanks to the editor, Joya Misra, and the three anonymous
reviewers for their help in revising this article. This research received no specific grant
from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Catherine Bolzendahl,
Department of Sociology, University of California, Irvine, 3151 Social Science Plaza,
Irvine, CA 92697, USA; e-mail: email@example.com.
GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol 28 No. 6, December 2014 847–876
© 2014 by The Author(s)
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
emocratic states have broad infrastructural power over civil society,
including the ability to implement political decisions affecting it.
Democratic state legislatures, which develop and determine these political
decisions—or policies—are arguably the most powerful state institutions
and, therefore, the extent to which women and men share access to this
power has important ramifications for policy-making outcomes and inequality. Along these lines, a growing body of international literature suggests that women’s office-holding matters in substantive ways, particularly
in favor of legislative outcomes often seen as being in “women’s interests” (e.g., Bolzendahl 2011; Wängnerud 2009). Simultaneously, one of
the most dramatic social changes in recent years has been the large-scale
increase in women’s representation in legislatures. As more women legislators are elected, we might expect their policy influence to grow, but the
mechanisms and directions of this influence are disputed. In these debates,
one underexplored mechanism is the gendered organization of the legislature itself.
I theorize the role of legislatures as gendered organizations that build
gender into their institutional operation. I explore this mechanism by
examining patterns in men’s and women’s legislative committee memberships and leadership roles over 40 years in three nations: Germany,
Sweden, and the United States. The comparative, historical case studies
reveal important variation across context and over time. On both dimensions, a combination of stereotyping and organizational redesign works
dynamically to protect masculine privilege. This variation reflects the
institutional construction of gender difference, such that gender is imbued
in the structures, roles, and relationships of the legislative committee system. Beyond confirming stereotypical gendered associations, my findings
show (1) extensive differences in the content and focus of “gendered”
committees, (2) disparate levels of gendered committee segregation, (3)
that equal representation does not automatically translate to committee
membership or leadership, and (4) the differential emergence of core areas
of hegemonic masculinity.
The answers shed light on institutional-level mechanisms driving gendered policy outcomes, highlight the qualitative comparative variation
inherent to this process, and illustrate fruitful overlaps among works theorizing the social structure of gender, gendered organizations, and feminist
institutionalism. My institutional-level approach suggests limitations to
overly emphasizing individual-level processes, such as women’s background, preferences, and interaction styles, to an a priori definition of
women’s interests, and of neglecting constructions of masculinity.
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 849
Theorizing Legislatures As Gendered
Legislatures are state institutions with broad power to organize societal
relations through policy making. Studies of gender within this institution
often focus on the differential goals and accomplishments of men and women
(Wängnerud 2009), constructing legislators as gendered individuals (Volden,
Wiseman, and Wittmer 2013). However, gender operates beyond the individual level, and is an institution in its own right (Martin 2004; Ridgeway
2011; Risman 1998, 2004) that creates difference and inequality across individual, interactional, and institutional dimensions (Connell 2002; Risman
2004). Thus, a given institution contains multiple dimensions of gender relations, but the institutional focus is also one dimension of inquiry into gender
relations (Connell 2002; Martin 2004; Risman 1998). Along these lines,
attempts to equalize men’s and women’s legislative roles and/or understand
differences in their political influence will be successful only to the extent that
we understand gender inequality as multiply determined (Ridgeway 2011).
Research by sociologists on gendered organizations provides one obvious body of literature for understanding the institutional construction of
gender in politics. Focusing mainly on women’s entry into the formal labor
market, this research shows that opportunities, successes, and failures
depend not (only) on women’s individual abilities and motivations but also
on the gendered organization of occupations and companies they join
(Kanter 1977). Organizations are not gender neutral, but systematically
privilege men and (hegemonic) masculinity, marginalize women and the
“feminine,” and contribute to gender segregation (Acker 1990). Many of the
pathways of organizational gendering highlight the institutional construction of gender, including the creation of divisions along gender lines; the
deployment of symbols and images that explain, express, and reinforce
those divisions; and the use of gender in the ongoing process of creating and
conceptualizing social structures (Acker 1990; Britton 2000; Connell 2005).
Political science literature on women’s political presence and influence
has begun to build upon theories of gendered organizations and gender as
a social structure. Nevertheless, insights with sociologists increasingly
overlap (Brush 2003), and a body of work broadly termed feminist institutionalism focuses explicitly on understanding the role of gender in formal and informal political institutions (Krook and Mackay 2011a;
Lovenduski 1998; Mackay 2004). This work demonstrates the importance
of breaking down state institutions into different arenas/spaces and understanding how component parts differentially produce (and challenge)
patriarchal power relations over time and across contexts (Chappell 2006;
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
Connell 1990, 2006; Sawer 2000).
Like theories of gendered organizations, feminist institutionalism emphasizes the need to understand how gender as a social construction permeates
and structures political arenas. Gendered organization and feminist institutional theorizing compel us to recognize that legislatures are also organizations with internal gender dynamics (Connell 2006). Diverging from
gendered organization theory, feminist institutionalism emerged from institutional theorizing, meaning that is primarily concerned with explaining
lower-level processes with higher level mechanisms, tending to avoid
individual-level, interactional explanations in favor of structural perspectives (Amenta and Ramsey 2010). This research tends to center arguments
around institutional-level constructions of gender as tied to legislatures’
powerful institutional role in society (Brush 2003). In this way, feminist
institutional theory has important, but underutilized, connections to theories
of gender as a social structure.
Given these considerations, I argue that theories of gendered organizations
and feminist institutionalism can be used to examine gendered institutional
mechanisms, since gender differences are created within the social structures
and organizational logics of the legislature and contribute to differences in
political influence and policy outcomes. Ultimately, this approach highlights
the ways in which opportunities and constraints, with regard to gender equality in politics, reflect institutional constructions of gender. Feminist institutionalism and gendered organizations theory complement my institutional-level
focus and demonstrate the importance of examining an institution’s component parts, in this case the legislative committee system. My approach emphasizes that legislatures are dynamic and changing, reveals how political
organizations “can be gendered” (Bacchi 1999; Beckwith 2005; Brush 2003),
and better allows for the relational, active construction of gender, including
the social construction of masculinity (Eveline and Bacchi 2005).
Research On Gendered Representation In
The main finding with regard to gender and legislative organizations
has been women’s exclusion (Beckwith 2010; Brush 2003). Yet we cannot
assume legislative organizations are de facto gendered masculine. First,
increasingly large numbers of women are elected to legislatures worldwide (Paxton, Kunovich, and Hughes 2007). Second, electing women
matters for policy outputs, especially those that benefit “women’s
interests” and other aspects of gender equality (Bolzendahl 2011; Bratton
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 851
2002; Bratton and Ray 2002; Carroll 2001; Chattopadhyay and Duflo
2004; Schwindt-Bayer and Mishler 2005; Swers 1998; Thomas 1991;
Vega and Firestone 1995; Wängnerud 2000). The hypothesized mechanisms linking women’s representation to policy outcomes occur at multiple levels, reflecting theories of gender as a social structure.
Prior research confirms the role of gendered identities and interactions
in producing gender differences in policy outcomes. Some work suggests
that women’s socialization and internalization of “feminine” gender
norms frame different styles of interaction and sets of interests and behaviors than men’s (Caiazza 2004; Carroll 2001; Childs 2004; Dodson 1998;
Lovenduski and Karam 2002; Volden, Wiseman, and Wittmer 2013;
Waring, Greenwood, and Pintat 2000; Welch 1985). The influence on
policy may be direct, and some work argues that women prefer serving on
committees that deal with health and welfare rather than business and
economics (Thomas 1994). The effect may also be indirect, such as when
colleagues, lobbyists, and constituents expect women legislators to be
more concerned than men legislators with issues such as family policy or
equal pay laws (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004; Wängnerud 2009).
However, gender is constructed beyond the individual (Connell 1990;
Risman 1998; West and Zimmerman 1987). Legislative organizations work
to create gendered interests as part of defining a legislator’s identity, selfimage, and preferences, as well as creating opportunities for action and
meanings assigned to political outcomes (Brush 2003). Legislators enter
political organizations that are not gender neutral but have been created and
organized to maintain and reflect masculine (patriarchal) assumptions
(Acker 1990; Connell 1990; Ely and Padavic 2007), and therefore the roles
that women (and men) play within legislatures may be at least partially
predetermined by the gender stereotypes imbued within the offices, policies, and practices inherent to that legislature (Acker 1990; Bacchi 1999).
“People versus Things”: Gendered Constructions of Women’s and
Men’s Committee Memberships
Legislative committees may be structured in ways that create and maintain preferred gender constructions (Franceschet 2011; Heath, SchwindtBayer, and Taylor-Robinson 2005), and prior work often describes these
as related to the “private” sphere, or to “people” rather than “things” (e.g.,
childbearing, care work, sexual harassment, bodily autonomy, and discrimination related to the labor market or politics; Beckwith and CowellMeyers 2007; Lovenduski 2005; Swers 2002; Wängnerud 2009). As
women are framed as less instrumental than men, they are also framed as
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
more ethical (Bourque and Grossholtz 1998; Goetz 2007). Therefore, it is
likely that women specialize in social/ethical issue committees. It is also
likely that men legislators concentrate on committees that deal with
“things” and that reflect Western gender stereotypes, emphasizing an
association of masculinity with instrumentality and agency (Ridgeway
2011). Scholars will occasionally define men’s interests as those related to
defense, the economy, and foreign policy (Kahn 1993; Kittilson and
Fridkin 2008; Thomas and Welch 1991); however, men have long held
70–95 percent of all legislative seats, making men’s issue specialization
practically impossible. With more recent trends toward a greater gender
balance, it may be easier to see if/how masculinity is institutionalized.
Importantly, all political issues are fundamentally about people and the
policies needed to operate society. Thus, the division of labor in committees can reveal how societies similarly or differentially construct gendered
interests to create (artificial) boundaries between “people” and “things”
(Bacchi 1999). In this way, I argue that the distribution of committee
memberships/leadership does not only represent gender constructions but
simultaneously creates them.
Relations of Power: Gendered Patterns of Leadership and
The discussion above reflects the ways gender is used to define men
and women as different, but gender is also used to define them as unequal
(Ridgeway 2011). Privileging the masculine and subordinating the feminine can occur in multiple ways, all of which reflect gendered relations of
power in legislative committees (Brush 2003; Connell 2005; Krook and
Mackay 2011a). One way this occurs is through unequal access to leadership positions, such as committee chair, where men’s dominance as chairpersons could block policy output by women members (Hojgaard 2002;
Kathlene 1994). This process creates women’s internal exclusion despite
a formal presence on the committee.
Patterns of membership and leadership may also reflect gendered perceptions of power and issue prestige (Franceschet 2011; Heath, Schwindt-Bayer,
and Taylor-Robinson 2005). Specifically, women’s overrepresentation on
family committees may reinforce the notion that women deal with “soft”
issues, simultaneously coding the issues “feminine” and thus of lesser power
and prestige. Men’s overrepresentation on defense or tax committees reaffirms their association with “hard” issues that convey power and mastery,
and coding of such issues as masculine implies their importance (Bourque
and Grossholtz 1998; Heath, Schwindt-Bayer, and Taylor-Robinson 2005).
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 853
Understanding how these processes vary over time is crucial because
gender is also a means of re-organizing relations of power (Acker 1990;
Eveline and Bacchi 2005) in order to maintain gender status differentials
(Reskin and Roos 1990). Finally, gendered power inequalities may also
be reflected in the language used to describe a committee’s purview.
When an organization is portrayed as aggressive, competitive, and efficient rather than friendly, caring, or supportive, it conveys notions of its
power and gender hierarchy (Acker 1990; Bacchi 1999). I will now
investigate power asymmetries in patterns of leadership, patterns of gender representation, and the organization of the committee system, all of
which may reflect notions of power and prestige in contextually specific
The case studies include up to 40 years of national legislative committee
memberships in Germany, Sweden, and the United States, collected and
coded by the author. Data for Sweden start in 1971, when the legislature
became unicameral (Riksdag), and covers 38 years. Data for Germany and the
United States start in 1969 and are for the lower house (Bundestag and House
of Representatives, respectively). Data for all three nations end in 2009.
Swedish data are annual and, prior to 1981, were obtained from rosters
available in the Riksdags Årsbok (yearbook) housed at the Royal Library
in Stockholm. After 1981, they were obtained from the Swedish Riksdag
website.1 German data were obtained exclusively from committee rosters
in member handbooks in the Bundestag library for each electoral term
(Berlin).2 U.S. data were collected for each electoral term from the
Congressional Directory3 and related publications (Nelson 1994). In each
case, I coded the rosters of the names of committee members and leaders
as men and women. I coded only full or regular members of a committee
and only standing or permanent committees.
These nations are often considered the archetypes of three different
approaches to state–society relations and welfare state typologies (EspingAnderson 1990; Huber and Stephens 2001; Sainsbury 1999). Thus,
though all nations are similarly situated as wealthy capitalist democracies,
this comparative case study follows a most different systems approach.
Importantly, these nations represent very different political approaches to
gender equality (Sainsbury 1999).
Germany is a conservative/corporatist welfare state that has historically
emphasized traditional gender roles and enacted policies protecting and
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
encouraging a male breadwinner–female homemaker gender system.
Overall labor force participation among women currently falls in the middle of OECD nations at about two-thirds in recent years, though mothers
have very low levels of participation and full-time participation is much
lower here than in the United States and Sweden. Recent years have also
seen large gains in women’s election to legislature, rising to more than 32
percent in 2009. It is a federal nation of 17 member states. The national
government is a parliamentary democracy where the 622 members are
elected by popular vote through a combination of direct and proportional
representation, and members serve four-year terms to the Bundestag
(lower house). There are six major parties: two right-leaning parties
(Christian Democratic Union [CDU] and Christian Social Union [CSU],
typically in coalition); three left-leaning parties (Greens, Left Party, and
Social Democratic Party [SPD]); and one liberal party (Free Democratic
Party [FDP]). There are typically 22 or 23 standing committees. Members
are appointed to committees by their party leaders, and membership and
leadership of committees is proportionally allocated (Conradt 2011).
Sweden, a social democratic welfare state, emphasizes equality of outcomes, particularly through women’s labor force participation, family
equality, and societal responsibility for care work. Women’s labor market
and political participation is among the highest in the Western world.
Incorporating men into child care has been at the forefront of policies, but
employment is relatively heavily gender segregated, and women’s employment is often part-time. Sweden uses a proportional electoral system to
create a unicameral parliamentary government of 349 members elected to
the Riksdag (Hancock 2011). There are eight main parties as of 2010:
three left-leaning parties (Left Party [V], the Greens [MP], and Social
Democratic Party [SAP]); one right-leaning party (Moderate Unity Party
[M]); one Christian party (Christian Democratic Union [KDS]); two liberal parties (People’s Party [FP] and Center Party [C]); and one populist
anti-immigrant party (Sweden Democrats [SD]). Sweden has 15 standing
committees that typically have 17 members in each. Membership on, and
leadership of, committees is proportional to the larger partisan composition of the Riksdag, and party leaders submit recommendations as to
member assignments4 (Arter 2004).
The United States is a liberal welfare state that emphasizes equality
through equalizing opportunities. Family and social policies are limited, and
these issues are viewed as individual, “private” concerns. Women have comparatively very high rates of labor force participation, much of it full-time,
though they remain primary caregivers at home and have among the lowest
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 855
levels of political representation in Western industrialized democracies. The
United States is a federal state system that employs a majoritarian (winnertakes-all) electoral system. Legislative representatives are elected from the
states, and party power does not necessarily reflect vote distributions. It is a
two-party system: one center-left party (Democrats) and one right party
(Republicans). The electoral system itself is seen as a strong barrier to greater
representation of women (e.g., Lawless and Pearson 2008). As of 2009, there
were 20 standing committees. Committee size and partisan distribution is
relative to the partisan composition of the House of Representatives.
Committee chairs are all members of the governing party, and optionally also
appoint vice chairs. Parties assign members to committees based on preferences and seniority.
Each nation’s legislative committee system is analyzed as a case of a
gendered organization. Methods include a detailed examination of patterns and change in men’s and women’s committee memberships and
leadership roles. All percentages in Tables 1, 3, and 4 are relative to
women’s actual representation in that nation/committee at that time.5
Patterns in Tables 1, 3, and 4 are considered for the full time period and
broken into two equal time periods to better illustrate the pace and direction of change in gender constructions. This division is theoretically
agnostic, and Figures 1–3 and Table 2 are used to further examine detailed
changes over time in the most segregated committees and in committee
leadership. Segregation is further analyzed through the calculation of dissimilarity index scores for each nation (Figure 3).6 Figures 2 and 3 and
Table 2 indicate changes to the governing party (coalition), and short-term
fluctuations often overlap with changes to party power. Notably, patterns
found often occur regardless of left/right periods of party power, suggesting trends are at least partially independent of partisan composition.
The broad scope of Germany’s legislative committee system is seen in
Table 1, which presents the gender composition of the committees and committee leadership positions. The gender division of labor reflects prior definitions of “women’s interests.” Women are always more likely to be on
committees dealing with family, health, youth, seniors, and women, regardless of time period. There is also evidence that women are consistently
overrepresented on the Petitions committee, a unique committee that allows
Total Average 1969–1987 Average 1990–2009 Average % Women Chair/
Gender Composition of the German Bundestag Committees and Committee Leadership, 1969–2009
Percentage women in the Bundestag
All Family, Health, Youth, Seniors, Womenb
Culture and Media (1998–)
Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid (1998–)
Economic Cooperation and Development
Labor and Social Affairs
Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear
All Education, Research, and Sciencec
Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protectiond
Intra-German Relations (1969–1987)
Total Average 1969–1987 Average 1990–2009 Average % Women Chair/
a. Average differences based on averages from range of years each committee existed paired with averages from the same range of years for women in legislature (i.e.,
committee %–legislative %). For example, for tenure of committee of the Affairs of the European Union, women in legislature averaged at 31 percent, leading to an 11
percent deficit in women’s representation on the Affairs of the European Union committee.
b. Includes 1969–1980, 2002: Youth, Family and Health, 1983–1987: Youth, Family, Women and Health, 1994–1998, 2005–2009: Families, Seniors, Women and Youth,
1990: (1) Families and Seniors and (2) Women and Youth, 1990–1998, 2005–2009: Health, 2002: Health and Social Issues.
c. Includes 1972–1990: Research and Technology, 1969–1990: Education and Science, 1994–2009: Education, Science, Research, and Technology.
d. 1968–1998: Food, Agriculture, and Forestry.
e. 1969–1994: Economic affairs.
f. 1969–1976: Transport, Postal, Telecommunications, 1980–1994: Transport, 1998–1909: Transport building and housing, 1980–1994: (1) Postal and (2)
Telecommunications, 1969–1994: Committee on Urban Planning, Housing, and Planning.
*p ≤ .05; †p ≤ .10, two-tailed, t distribution.
Elections, Immunity, and Rules of Procedure
Economic Affairs and Technologye
Transportation, Telecommunications, and Urban
Affairs of the European Union (1994–)
Average N (election years)
Table 1 (continued)
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
citizens to submit formal petitions for government action and provides a
direct connection with the civil society. In the latter six electoral periods
(1990–2009), committees on culture and media, tourism, and human rights
and humanitarian aid were added to the list of standing committees, and
have held significantly more women. The only committees consistently
dominated by men are the committees for Affairs of the European Union
and Foreign Affairs. In the first time period, men dominated committees in
line with standard hegemonic masculine expectations (e.g., Defense,
Economic Affairs, Transportation), but not more recently. In the second
time period, there are a wider variety of committees with an overrepresentation of women, and these represent a somewhat broader range of issues,
such as the committees on Education, Research and Science, and Food,
Agriculture, and Consumer Protection.
Gender composition has typically not directly translated to leadership
roles. There are two Bundestag committees where women have held the
majority of leadership positions: Family and Petitions. In general, German
women are underrepresented in leadership roles. Even women-dominated
committees, such as culture, tourism, and human rights, have had 75–83
percent men chairs. Women have occupied the fewest leadership roles in
areas coded masculine, for example, Budget, Economic Affairs, Legal
Affairs, and Transportation. Although leadership is segregated, trends
over time in Figure 1 reveal sharp gains in women’s leadership roles.
Figure 1: Trends in the percentage of women representatives who chair or
vice-chair legislative committees
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 859
Figure 2: Trends in gender segregation among the most male- and
female-dominated committees, with a comparison to percentage of women
To further explore change over time in the gendered organization of the
committee system, the top panel of Figure 2 illustrates changes over the
entire time period in the most men- and women-dominated committees
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
relative to women’s overall representation. This documents a pattern of
polarizing differences. Women’s entry into the Bundestag has been
accompanied by patterns of gender specialization, likely due to the addition of women-dominated committees on culture, tourism, and humanitarian aid. The committees most historically dominated by men remain so,
though differences begin to narrow when considering the top five most
Rather than focus only on the cases with substantial differences,
another approach is to consider overall segregation in the committee system. The left panel of Figure 3 presents trends in dissimilarity indices
calculated for each year across the entire committee system. The index
tells us what percent of legislators would have to change committees to
obtain parity. Again, this trend is placed in comparison to women’s overall
representation. This shows that overall segregation has dropped, as the
data in Table 1 suggested, but the pace has been slow. Changes in party
control may have some relationship to segregation, and it rose under the
leadership of the center-right coalition from 1983-97.
Figure 3: Over time trends in dissimilarity index scores and percentage of
women in legislature for Germany, Sweden, and the United States
NOTE: Years are election years, with governing partisan coalitions presented when there is
a change in composition.
As a conservative democracy that has long prioritized women’s traditional family role, culturally and through policy, Germany’s committee
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 861
structure reflects those priorities. Women are often identified as an
explicit policy concern, but within the rubric of traditional understandings
of women’s role. This pattern can be seen in Table 2. The conservative
iteration of the Families, Seniors, Women, and Youth committee (generally in place since 1994) describes its priorities as
support for children and families and measures to help parents combine
family life and paid employment . . . to promote the equal treatment of men
and women, measures that enable old people to live independent lives and
action to support young people and involve them in the wider community
Although the goals are ostensibly in favor of helping men and women, the
committee title is directed toward women. With women comprising 56
percent of the membership, the message is clearly that such issues are
“women’s issues” and are to be addressed by women. Notably, the most
gender-neutral iterations of the committee prior to 1980 and in 2002 came
when center-left governments were in power.
Table 2: Historical Changes in Committee Structure of Bundestag
Women, Health, Family, Youth and Senior Committees and the Percentage
of Women on Each Committee
Ruling Party Coalition
Youth, Family, and Health
Youth, Family, Women
Families, Seniors, Women
Families and Seniors
Women and Youth
Health and Social Issues
CDU/CSU/ CDU/CSU/ SPD/
98 94 90 87 83 80 76 72 69
.12 .19 .22 .20
.32 .44 .41
NOTE: CDU = Christian Democratic Union of Germany; CSU = Christian Social Union of Bavaria;
FDP = Free Democratic Party; SPD = Social Democratic Party of Germany; GRUNE = Alliance ‘90/The
Women’s increased election to the Bundestag tracked the addition of
committees whose descriptive titles and language reinforces stereotypically feminine constructions, and these committees are dominated by
women (Table 1). Committees of Culture and Media (“a point of contact
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
at federal level for artists and others working in the arts, as well as seeking
to contribute to the dialogue of cultures”), Tourism (“from political poor
relation to a committee in its own right”), Human Rights and Humanitarian
Aid, and the Petitions (“letters addressing requests or complaints to the
Bundestag are passed on to the Committee, which examines and deliberates on these”) do not convey masculinized notions of power and influence, but code toward feminized issues of care for others and worry about
self-presentation, and to ensure the accountability of the Bundestag to the
public (Goetz 2007). The language of the most men-dominant committee
is an important contrast:
“At the heart of Parliament’s European policymaking” [:] The existence of
the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union is enshrined in the
German constitution, the Basic Law. This committee is the central forum
for the German Bundestag’s participation in European affairs. As a crosssectoral committee, it deals amongst other things with fundamental questions of European integration, institutional topics and enlargement issues.
It therefore has special powers and includes not only Members of the
Bundestag, but also Members of the European Parliament.
There can be no doubt that this is a powerful and influential committee
with broad reach across the European context.
In Table 3, an examination of the Swedish Riksdag committees suggests some similar patterns as in Germany. Women are overrepresented on
committees dealing with Social Insurance, Culture, Health and Welfare,
and Justice, and, in the last twenty years, with Labor and Education. This
supports expectations about women’s involvement in committees dealing
with “soft,” “private-sphere,” and “ethics” issues. Men are overrepresented in committees on Transportation, Finance, Tax, Defense, the
Constitution, and Agriculture, consistent with the expectation that men are
involved in committees dealing with “hard,” “public-sphere” issues.
Over time, however, men’s specialization has been declining, with gender gaps growing smaller and more women sitting on formerly mendominated committees (Wängnerud 2010). Change in the women-dominated
committees has been slower. As in Germany, women-dominated committees seem least likely to fully integrate, but unlike Germany, the committee on Foreign Affairs is not dominated by men, suggesting initial
evidence that the construction of masculinity in these two committee
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 863
Table 3: Gender Composition of the Swedish Riksdag Committees and
Committee Leadership, 1971–2009
Differencea Differencea Differencea
Percentage women in
Health and Welfare
All Legal, Housing, and
Industry and Trade
Average N (years)e
*p≤.05; †p≤.10, two-tailed, t-distribution
a. Average differences based on averages from range of years each committee existed paired with averages from the same range of years for women in legislature, and are based on data from every year (not
only election years) (i.e., committee %–legislative %).
b. 1971–1977: Interior.
c. Includes 1971–1982: Civil Affairs, 1983–2005: (1) Housing (2) Legal Affairs, 2006–2009: Civil Affairs.
d. 1971–1995: Agriculture.
e. 2003 information is missing. Leadership information is missing for: Finance 2004–2005; Environment
and Agriculture 1999; Labor 2004; Taxation 2000–2002. Percentages calculated on available information.
Cochair or co–vice chair counted as 0.5.
systems may differ.8 Patterns of committee leadership are also not as
polarized as in Germany.
In Sweden, there are more committees where women’s percentage of
chair/vice chair seats resembles overall levels of membership. As Figure 1
illustrates, women’s committee leadership roles have increased rapidly in
Sweden, approaching half of all positions at the end of the time period.
Again, women’s leadership tends to be in the most women-dominated
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
committees, while women have never chaired the Defense committee or
been vice chair of the Constitution committee. Given overall high levels
of women’s representation (among the highest in the world), this is convincing evidence that women remain excluded from power as a regular
feature of all democratic legislative institutions.
Taking a closer look at changes in gender segregation over time, the
middle panel of Figure 2 suggests Sweden portrays a nearly opposite pattern as in Germany, and the overall historical trend is one of converging
differences. This is particularly true of historically men-dominated committees where women seemed to gain seats fairly consistently. In the most
recent years, formerly women-dominated committees have also integrated
more fully. The pattern is not limited to those committees, as we see in the
middle panel of Figure 3. Despite variation across election cycles, where
segregation appears to drop more rapidly under left-leaning governments,
the broad trend in Sweden has been declining gender segregation in committee memberships.
In Sweden, while women dominate the social committees, none of
these committees places the focus explicitly on gender or women. The
Social Insurance committee has a broader role than Germany’s, including
“national insurance, national pensions, occupational injury insurance,
financial support for families with children, Swedish citizenship and
migration.”9 The Health and Welfare committee is similarly broad:
Prepares matters concerning care and welfare services for children and
young people except for pre-school activities and care services for schoolchildren, the care and welfare of the elderly and the disabled, measures to
combat drug and alcohol abuse and other social service questions. It also
prepares matters concerning alcohol policy measures, health and medical
care and social welfare questions in general.
The interesting difference here is that Sweden avoids the connotation (at
least officially) that such issues are “women’s issues,” and men’s growing
interest in social issues is backed by some recent research (Wängnerud
2010). However, other patterns of gender overrepresentation may tell us
more about gender typing in the system. First, Swedish women are overrepresented on the Cultural Affairs10 and Justice committees. This may
convey differential power or expectations of an “ethics orientation”
among women. Men’s overrepresentation reflects stereotypical notions of
masculinity in relation to hardware, money, and defense. However, gaps
here are generally modest and declining. Overall, Sweden has—at least
officially—reduced the salience of gender as a means of organizing the
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 865
committee system of the Riksdag, while simultaneously not excluding
issues commonly seen as “women’s interests.”
Table 4 shows patterns of gender composition in committees and leadership roles for the United States. The most important pattern in the
United States is one of exclusion, where the main gender division of labor
is women’s absence. Over the first time period there are, on average, only
8 percent women in the House, rising to only 12 percent in the second
time period. Patterns also cannot replicate those in Sweden or Germany,
primarily because the United States does not have a committee devoted to
family, women’s, elderly, or social and cultural issues even though social
and family issues are intricately related to a wide variety of policy
domains and are commonly included in political debates. Here we see
strong evidence for the institutional impact of the committee system itself,
where so-called soft specializations are not even available.11 Their official
exclusion from the agenda may serve to deny women a common route to
greater representation. Yet, the question remains as to whether gender is
being constructed along alternative dimensions.
Divisions of labor over the entire time period reveal consistent evidence only for women’s overrepresentation on the Financial Services
committee. When splitting the sample, we see that in the later period,
women come to specialize in rules and conduct types of committees as
well as education. Financial Services is an influential committee, though
its role in regulating housing and education loans and insurance allows
women to campaign on public goods for their constituents and may be
treated as a way to help others. In illustration, women tend to be overrepresented on the associated subcommittee for Insurance, Housing, and
Community Opportunity, and three long-time ranking women members
outspokenly highlight their role on this committee as such.12 Similarly,
education may obliquely signify an association of women with the care of
younger generations, as well as the fact that the majority of non-university
educators are women. Long considered one of the most powerful and
prestigious committees, men consistently dominate Ways and Means, and
also Agriculture. Otherwise, the gender composition is quite similar to
women’s overall representation, though it is important to remember that
the figure of comparison is quite low.
Women are virtually never committee chairs or vice chairs, except on
the few committees where they appear to be increasingly overrepresented
as members. Over 21 electoral periods and 465 occasions where chairs
Total Average Total Average 1969–1987 Average 1989–2009 Average % Women Chair/
Gender Composition of the U.S. House of Representatives Committees and Committee Leadership, 1969–2009
Percentage women in House of
Small Business (1971–)
Standards of Official Conduct
Oversight and Government Reformd
Education and the Workforcee
Merchant Marine and Fisheries
Science and Technologyf
Transportation And Infrastructureg
Energy and Commercei
Total Average Total Average 1969–1987 Average 1989–2009 Average % Women Chair/
a. Average differences based on averages from range of years each committee existed paired with averages from the same range of years for
women in legislature (i.e., committee %–legislative %).
b. 1971–1973: Internal Security (no women served on this committee), 1995–1997: National Security.
c. 1969–1975: Banking and currency, 1975: Banking currency and Housing, 1977–1997: Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, 1999–1901: Banking
and financial services.
d. 1969–1993: Government operations, 1995–1999: Government reform and oversight, 1999–2007: Government reform.
e. 1969–1995: Education and Labor, 1995–1999: Economic and Educational Opportunities.
f. 1969–1975: Science and Astronautics.
g. 1969–1975: Public works, 1975–1995: Public works and Transportation.
h. 1975–1979, 1995–2007: International relations.
i. 1995–2001: Commerce.
j. 1969–1993: Interior and Insular Affairs, 1995–2007 Resources, Did not exist in other years.
k. Vice chairs are not appointed every time. For Financial Services Vice Chairs n = 3, for House Administration n = 2. Not all committees exist in
each 21 periods (as noted in table).
*p ≤ .05; †p ≤ .10, two-tailed, t distribution.
Permanent Select Intelligence (1975,
Interstate and Foreign Commerce
Ways and Means
Average N (election years)
Table 4 (continued)
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
and vice chairs have been appointed, only 11 of those appointees have
been women, in spite of the fact that Democrats were largely in power,
had the ability to assign leadership roles, and comprised most of the
women members. Exclusion from these leadership positions, even where
women are overrepresented as members, suggests women have less
access to agenda setting and voice (Kathlene 1994). Figure 2 reveals a
slight bump in 2009, but overall, the overwhelming message is that
political power is gendered male.
Emerging differences over the past 10 years are suggestive. The Rules
committee is considered quite powerful within the House, but deals
mainly with shaping how debate regarding legislation is carried out. The
Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) committee deals with rules pertaining to legislative behavior (e.g., size of gifts accepted from donors or
travel funding), and both Financial Services and Oversight and Reform
have lately been responsible for many ethical and regulatory issues related
to corruption in the markets and bureaucracy. As discussed earlier, the
patterns suggest women are associated with a moral stance and a watchdog responsibility (Bourque and Grossholtz 1998; Goetz 2007). Although
Figure 3 suggests overall declining gender segregation, the very low levels of women in office mean gains appear much larger than they are in
reality. The declining segregation among U.S. men and women legislators
shown in Figure 3 does not reflect a less “gendered” culture, but rather the
most gendered legislative culture, where men hold the vast majority of the
seats and power. In this case, the focus is almost exclusively on a masculine ideal. Those issues defined as “feminized” in other contexts cannot be
addressed, as they are not even a legitimate part of the institutional political agenda.
As men and women increasingly share access to state power, there has
been a question of whether increasing descriptive representation leads to
substantive change, and a sizable body of literature suggests it does. In
explaining this relationship, institutional-level constructions of gender have
been undertheorized and understudied. Focusing on legislative committee
systems as gendered organizations, I examined how the institutional-level
gendering of ideas, roles, and structures occurs in these committee systems,
comparatively and over time. Briefly, I summarize the country-specific
findings before turning to broader substantive and theoretical conclusions.
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 869
Germany’s legislative committee system is best characterized as a
polarized gendered organization. Levels of segregation are declining, but
the gender composition of the most gendered committees is growing more
disparate. Further, the institutionalization of the term women in the social
issue committee is a marker of its feminization and makes gender effectively salient, heightening the relevance of gender stereotypes in legislators’ interactions (Ridgeway 2011). Finally, as women have increased
their presence in the Bundestag, new women-dominated committees were
added that primarily dealt with “soft” issues such as culture or tourism.
The addition of the new committees is also reminiscent of findings on
occupational gender re-segregation (Reskin and Roos 1990), thus maintaining more polarized outcomes and suggesting German differences are
not reducible to cultural gender constructions alone.
Sweden has an egalitarian-trending gendered organization. Traditional
notions of gender are not inscribed in the structure of the committee systems and the goals it pursues, which may reduce the salience of gender
divisions for policy decisions and interactions in committee meetings.
Women increasingly sit on all committees and act as chair or vice chair
40–50 percent of the time in recent years. Important disparities remain in
most men- and women-dominated committees, particularly in women’s
leadership on men-dominated committees. However, without a committee
structure that directly implicates women or men in particular roles, gender
differentiation appears less salient to the policy tasks of the committees.
The Swedish system simultaneously validates and institutionalizes social
and familial issues as legitimate political affairs. Sweden’s turn to convergence came after many years of high levels of women’s representation. It
is not clear whether a similar pattern would be found in Germany or the
United States if levels of gender parity were similar.
The United States is a masculine dominance gendered organization.
Men dominate in terms of overall presence, in leadership roles, and in
policy issues. Dominance is also typed masculine to the extent that
women are simply excluded from the political process in numbers and in
the types of issues deemed relevant for major policy-making goals.
Women members are clustered in a certain group of committees often
dealing with affairs internal to the House. The system lacks committees
related to social issues, reflecting a masculine standard that allows the
organizational logic to appear gender neutral (Acker 1990). Although
some may argue this is due to the extensive legislative powers held by
individual states, this only supports the conclusion that social issues are
not included as legitimate aspects of national concern. As tokens, women
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
may benefit from being treated as individuals, but in comparison to
Germany and Sweden, have limited opportunities to affect policy as
women, and cannot fully capitalize on voters’ views of women as more
capable with regard to expressive issues. The “winner takes all” electoral
system likely exacerbates patterns as incumbent men may wish to “horde”
powerful committee seats that increase their standing with constituents for
re-election, while the individualistic political culture denies women legislators the opportunity to frame women as a political constituency.
Altogether, these results may also help explain the weaker and somewhat
contradictory reports of women’s influence on U.S. policy outputs
(Caiazza 2004; Carroll 2001; Reingold 2000; Swers 2002).
Overall, my findings show that there are certain common institutionallevel constructions of gender difference. The division of labor, both in
committee memberships and leadership, shows a tendency for men to be
associated with instrumental issues like foreign affairs, transportation,
finance, and taxes, and women with committees dealing with social
issues, culture, health, human rights, rules, and services. This is not simply a reflection of gender typing, but may also contribute to the reification
of gendered assumptions about political issues themselves. This process
plays out, for example, in allowing legislators to underplay the importance of people and social issues with regard to transportation and finance,
or the importance of financial and infrastructural issues with regard to
family, health, and human rights. Gender imbalances in leadership may
exacerbate this, to the extent that agenda setting and leadership remain a
male role. Therefore, when scholars ask why women legislators might
differentially impact policy on social issues (Bolzendahl 2011), I argue
that it is at least partially due to similarities in the institutionalization of
gender in legislatures.
Beyond this important analytical insight, the variation across nations
and over time reveals important aspects of the institutional-level construction of gendered power relations. First, many substantive areas of gender
specialization differed, both because gendered patterns of segregation
differed and because the opportunity structure of the systems themselves
differed. Focusing only on traditionally defined “women’s issues” would
obscure such variation. In particular, committees may be restructured to
maintain gender differences despite numerical gains, such as in Germany.
Second, numbers can matter. Where women remain tokens, such as in the
United States, participation in committees is de facto men dominated, and
it has taken many years of high representation levels to see strong moves
toward committee integration and leadership equality in Sweden. Third,
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 871
gendered status inequalities are powerful. Those committees dominated
by women have been the most resistant to integration, suggesting they
remain ghettoized and less desirable and prestigious. Such processes are
multiply motivated; thus, we could surmise that women-dominated committees can be coded less prestigious because they are composed of
women (e.g., Rules or Financial Services in the United States) and that
stereotypical assumptions about women’s competence on particular issues
lead more women to be placed on such committees (e.g., Family in
Germany). Tracing the exact reasons why legislators are placed on individual committees is beyond the scope of this article, but future research
can productively examine these mechanisms.
Further empirical work can and should investigate and test propositions
related to these results. Though beyond the theoretical and empirical aim
of this analysis, future work can productively consider the mechanisms
producing institutional or organizational change and interrogate the link
between changes in gender composition and the construction of gender.
Notably, in numerous committees in each nation, men’s and women’s
representation was statistically equal. This suggests a number of areas
where gender may only be as, or even less, salient than other characteristics such as partisanship or educational background. Thus, gender insights
can and should be combined with an understanding of partisan, electoral,
economic, and cultural mechanisms that shape policy and state power.
Integrating the disparate literatures based on theories of historical and
political institutionalism, gender and power, and gendered organizations
involves many complex links. One effort, the development of feminist institutionalism, highlights the advantages of my analysis (Krook and Mackay
2011b). First, by breaking down state legislative institutions into a constituent part (committees), I examine its particular institutionalized space. Doing
so highlights the relevance of gendered organization theory, where processes
such as organizational redesign may work to protect masculine privilege.
The analysis of legislative committee organizations demonstrates that gendered influence does not simply reflect individual interests, but also structural opportunities and limitations as represented by the existing committee
and leadership system. Second, despite a recognition that gendered institutions are historically the “mobilization of masculine bias” (Acker 1990;
Connell 1990; Krook and Mackay 2011b), institutions are also dynamic and
changing. From this perspective, I reveal how these committees operate as
political organizations that “can be gendered” and how and where this process
varies (Beckwith 2005; Britton 2000). My historical examination reveals
remarkable capacity for change. All three nations had committees end, start,
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2014
or reorganize. Thus, it is not unrealistic to expect that changes in favor of
gender equality could be launched at the institutional level.
2. Kürschners Volkshandbuch: Deutscher Bundestag (Kürschner’s People’s
Guidebook to the German Bundestag), http://www.bundestag.de/service/
5. As a representation of the pool of potential committee members, all figures
are presented in relation to the percentage of legislature that was composed of
women. Notably, this is different from the partisan composition of women in
legislature and of the electorate.
6. Duncan’s D = .5∑ |mini|, where mi is the ratio of the number of women in a
committee to the number of women persons in the legislature. Inversely, nj is the
ratio of the number of men in a committee to the number of men in the legislature.
The higher the index for a year, the more segregated that legislature’s committee
7. All direct quotes regarding Bundestag committee functions are taken
directly from the English Bundestag website or a translation thereof. See, e.g.,
8. The Riksdag has an EU Affairs committee but only for consultant purposes,
does not introduce legislation, and is not considered a standing committee. An
analysis of patterns since 1999 does not reveal significant gender differences, and
women have been chair and vice chair since 2006.
9. All committees are discussed in English here: http://www.riksdagen.se/
templates/r_page____794.aspx, July 2011.
10. The committee “prepares matters concerning culture, education and popular adult education, youth activities, international cultural cooperation and sport
and leisure activities. The Committee also prepares matters relating to religious
communities as well as radio and television insofar as they do not fall to the
Committee on the Constitution to prepare.” http://www.riksdagen.se/templates/
r_page____794.aspx, July 2011.
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Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. This subcommittee is nearly 50 percent women as of 2011. Other social issue subcommittees,
however, are not similarly skewed (e.g., the Health, Social Security, or Human
Resources subcommittees of the Ways and Means committee) (www.house.gov,
Bolzendahl / OPPORTUNITIES AND EXPECTATIONS 873
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Catherine Bolzendahl is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University
of California, Irvine. Her research examines gender and family in various
political arenas, including social spending, citizenship norms and participation, and support for gender equality and family policy. She is a coauthor of
Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family.
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