As last week's emotionally charged Brett Kavanaugh hearing reminded us, the gender make-up of government panels can be a volatile issue—especially when it is widely perceived that women's rights hang in the balance.
Timely new research suggests Republican senators' unease about their lack of female colleagues is well-founded. It reports the public is more accepting of rulings that run contrary to women's interests if a lawmaking body is equally composed of men and women, as opposed to being all-male.
"Women's equal presence grants legitimacy to political decisions and democratic procedures," writes a research team led by Vanderbilt University political scientist Amanda Clayton. Its study finds equal representation of men and women on a governmental body "confers institutional trust and acquiescence."
The study, in the American Journal of Political Science, features more than 1,800 Americans polled in two separate surveys. All read a vignette about a state legislative committee that had reached a decision regarding workplace sexual harassment laws.
Half read a version where the panel voted to increase penalties for harassment, while the others read a version where they voted to decrease them. In addition, half were told the panel was all-male, while the other half was informed it was split 50-50 between male and female members.
Using a one-to-four scale, participants indicated whether they made the right decision; whether the decision was fair to women; whether the decision was fair; and whether the legislature "can be trusted to make decisions that are right for the state's citizens."
"Citizens, on average, see anti-feminist decisions as more legitimate when women are included in the decision-making process," the researchers report. "Further, we find some suggestive evidence that this effect is especially pronounced among men, those with less crystallized views on sexual harassment, and self-identified Republicans."
"On the one hand, this outcome is deeply troubling," they write. It suggests misogynist politicians hoping to roll back women's rights could manipulate public opinion by including like-minded women on rule-making bodies.
"On the other hand, this outcome signals the profound importance of inclusion. Assuming good-faith deliberations, the vices of marginalized groups matter, even when those groups lose benefits or protections."
More broadly, "we find that, on average, gender balance improves citizens' attitudes regardless of the decision the panel makes," they add. The presence of women on a panel, they write, "communicates procedural legitimacy."
A follow-up experiment found this effect is not limited to issues specifically affecting women. The researchers created a different scenario in which the panel (all-male or 50-50 male-female) considered increased penalties for mistreatment of animals on commercial farms.
They found the make-up of the panel did not affect people's views on the correctness of the policy. But respondents considered the decision more legitimate when the panel was made up of both men and women.
"These findings support claims that inclusion matters for broader reasons of justice," the researchers conclude.
What about panels that contain a token number of women? The researchers conducted a preliminary analysis in which they modified their eight-member committee to include one woman and seven men.
"We find that, in this case, the legitimizing effects of women's presence no longer held," they report. "This suggests that citizens cannot be swayed by the presence of a token group representative."
More research will be needed to determine what level of research constitutes "tokenism" in most people's minds. If Kavanaugh, or another man, is confirmed by the Senate, the Supreme Court's gender ratio will remain at six men and three women.
Is that two-to-one ratio sufficient for people to see rulings that arguably harm women, such as a repeal of Roe v. Wade, as legitimate? Especially if the female justices all dissent? It's an intriguing open question.
If such decisions are widely derided, and the court's stature is diminished, President Donald Trump might regret not choosing Amy Coney Barrett or some other conservative female judge for the seat. It appears men are more likely to view rulings that restrict the rights of women as OK if women were involved in the decision-making process.