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December 10th, 2019

New evidence suggests that for legislators, dovishness or hawkishness has little to do with gender.


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

December 10th, 2019

New evidence suggests that for legislators, dovishness or hawkishness has little to do with gender.


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Past research has uncovered distinct differences in how male and female legislators vote. But do these differences apply to foreign policy and military matters as well? In new research which analyses several decades of US House and Senate votes, William Bendix and Gyung-Ho Jeong find no difference in how men and women vote on military matters. Legislators, they write, are more likely to be dovish or hawkish, the more liberal or conservative their electorate.

Are elected women more dovish than elected men? Are they more likely to support military cuts and oppose military action than their male colleagues? Do established democracies become more pacifistic as women gain an increasing share of seats in national legislatures? Because we see an unprecedented number of elected women around the world, these questions have become increasingly important. If gender differences over foreign policy do exist, then the security priorities of many democracies—including the United States—may be shifting. In fact, recent studies have found that military budgets decrease significantly as female representation in legislatures increases.

While there are some important, well-documented differences between male and female legislators, we’re skeptical that gender and dovishness are linked. Here’s why. On domestic policy, legislators generally support bills that either their party’s leaders or their constituents favor. We argue the same thing happens in foreign policy—that partisanship and electoral pressures are much more powerful than gender is in shaping legislative decisions on security and defense.

Whether male or female, those who represent liberal voters tend to be doves and those who represent conservative voters tend to be hawks.

Why Researchers Think Gender Matters

Before explaining the basis for our skepticism, we should outline why some scholars claim that gender plays a large role in foreign policy decision-making. A mountain of research shows that women, because of biology and social pressures, are less violent and physically aggressive than men. It stands to reason, then, that women as policymakers may prefer diplomacy over militarism. Research also shows that female legislators often act as “surrogate representatives,” reflecting the priorities of women nationally—not just the priorities of their own constituents. As surrogates, they may support diplomacy over militarism not only because they hold dovish views themselves, but also because they want to represent the dovish views that many women also hold.

But to reiterate, we’re skeptical. The studies that link increasing female representation with decreasing militarism haven’t adequately considered how party and constituency affect legislative behavior. Nor have they shown that female lawmakers push for cuts in defense budgets. The research offers suggestive correlations, but no direct evidence.

Identifying the Hawks and Doves in Congress

To see whether gender matters in foreign policy, we look at all national security votes cast in the US House of Representatives since 1973 and all such votes cast in the Senate since 1993. We focus our study on the Congress because US lawmakers have a great deal of independence and can vote against their party without suffering their leadership’s wrath. In most parliaments, by contrast, party discipline runs so high that floor votes don’t necessarily reveal the policy preferences of individual legislators.

Susan Collins” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.

But it isn’t enough to see whether men and women vote differently on foreign policy items. Legislative votes are not directly comparable because they differ in substance and importance. For this reason, we apply a scaling technique to all national security votes that allows us to estimate how hawkish or dovish each member generally is for every two-year Congress. For example, we generate 10 separate estimates for a member who has served in Congress for 20 years, enabling us to track that member’s ideological movement over time. Our hawk-dove estimates run on a scale from roughly +3 to -3, with hawks having positive scores and doves having negative scores.

Here’s what we find from our estimates. First, looking at party averages, we see Republicans are more hawkish than Democrats are across all years and in both chambers. Second, looking at averages by gender, we see female Republicans tend to be more dovish than male Republicans and female Democrats tend to be more dovish than male Democrats. But these gender differences aren’t consistent over time or across chambers. As Figure 1 shows, there’s some overlap between male and female House Republicans in recent years and considerable overlap between male and female Senate Democrats in all years.

Figure 1 – Foreign Policy Positions by Party and Gender

Digging deeper, we look at the positions of prominent senators from both parties and see whether any other notable patterns emerge. We find many interesting trends, but one stands out: female Democrats from conservative-leaning states and female Republicans from liberal-leaning states diverge most from their parties. For example, Figure 2 shows that Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from reddish Missouri, is a relative hawk while Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from bluish Maine, is a relative dove.

That suggests reelection pressure—not gender—is largely driving the foreign policy decisions of legislators.

Figure 2 – Foreign Policy Positions of Selected Senators

To see whether that’s the case, we conduct a series of statistical analyses in which we account for how conservative each member’s district or state is. Once we do so, we find that the difference between male and female members on foreign policy virtually disappears. Indeed, we see no difference between male and female Republicans in either chamber, and no difference between male and female Democrats in the Senate. Only among House Democrats do gender differences remain statistically significant. But even here the differences are minimal and uneven across time. It’s primarily in recent years when we see female House Democrats being more dovish than their male colleagues.

The takeaway is that gender plays, at most, a small role in shaping the foreign policy preferences of legislators. Members appear to take on national security positions that are largely in line with what their voters want.

Gender Is the Effect, Not the Cause

So, what should we make of previous studies that find a strong link between increasing female representation and decreasing militarism? In our view, it’s unlikely that countries become more pacifistic because they elect more women. Instead, we suspect that as liberal, dovish voters become a larger share of the electorate, they elect a larger share of liberal, dovish legislators. And because left-of-center parties often field female candidates, a liberal electorate ends up supporting liberal, dovish legislators who happen to be women.

In other words, the successful rise of elected women isn’t the cause of pacifism—it’s the effect.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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About the authors 

William Bendix – Keene State College
William Bendix is an Associate Professor at Keene State College. His research focuses on the Congress, especially its role in developing and monitoring national security policies.  



Gyung-Ho Jeong – University of British Columbia
Gyung-Ho Jeong is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. His research interests include US Politics, Legislative Politics, Social Choice, Political Economy, and Legislative Politics in Korea.

About the author

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Posted In: Gyung-Ho Jeong | US foreign affairs and the North American neighbourhood | William Bendix

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