Female state senators in influential posts such as committee chairs are more likely to experience harassment and other forms of aggression from their colleagues than their male counterparts, a recent study shows, potentially hindering their ability to build coalitions with fellow lawmakers and be effective legislators.
The paper, published Jan. 12 in Political Research Quarterly, found colleague aggression, ranging from verbal to physical abuse, is generally rare among both male and female U.S. state senators, but becomes more common when the legislature includes a relatively high proportion or growing share of female lawmakers, as well as when women hold leadership roles.
Sue Thomas, co-author of the paper and a senior research scientist at the nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said women may be perceived as a threat to a male-dominated status quo when they appear to be gaining political power.
“When [women] have more power, however you operationalize that power … that’s when you see the biggest effects [on aggression] collectively, across all our research,” Thomas told The Academic Times.
She added that the evidence also indicates that women in higher legislative positions are disproportionately targeted.
Though sometimes overlooked by the public, statehouses tend to be key battlegrounds for hot-button issues such as abortion, health care and labor protections. Many scholars research state governments, but no previous study has examined how power dynamics could influence harassment against female lawmakers in statehouses.
Thomas began researching aggressions toward elected officials in 2016 when she read a report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union that found a “troubling prevalence” of such aggressions against female members of parliaments around the world.
The report, she said, was illuminating, but lacked any comparison to the experience of men in government and did not explore the trend in the U.S.
“The first thing that came to mind was, ‘We’ve got to begin to look at this and establish some sort of baseline,’ because otherwise, we’ll have nothing for the future and nothing to compare it to,” Thomas said.
For this paper, Thomas and her colleagues anonymously surveyed 252 state senators out of approximately 1,940 across the country, which compares to response rates of other recent studies on state legislatures. The survey, conducted between July and September 2019, asked respondents whether they had experienced aggressive behavior from colleagues in the first half of the year; colleague aggression was defined as “abusive, harassing, offensive, threatening or physically violent behaviors,” such as “uninvited attention,” abusive or hateful speech and bodily harm. Legislators were then asked to indicate how often they experienced these behaviors on a scale from zero to four, with zero signifying "never" and four signifying "more than four times a month."
Of the surveyed legislators, 68 were female senators, or 36% of the sample. About 29% of all state legislature seats in the U.S. are held by women.
At least half of the state senators surveyed said they experienced at least one form of aggression in the six-month period studied, the authors wrote, but the results do not show a significant difference in the amount of aggressive behavior male and female lawmakers experience in general.
When the researchers dug deeper, however, they found a more significant variation in reported aggression by gender among higher-ranking legislators. Female committee chairs, for example, scored an average of 1.87 on the scale, compared to 1.37 for male committee chairs and 1.53 for women who are not committee chairs.
Notably, Thomas and her colleagues found female party leaders in either the majority or minority faction are significantly less likely to report harassment, perhaps suggesting that women with the ability to reward or punish colleagues directly may help offset the effect of increased backlash toward women senators in leadership posts.
Female senators in states where more than 20% of state senate seats are held by women scored an average of 1.81 on the survey, versus 1.13 in areas with less female representation. Additionally, women in states with the lowest proportion of female senators reported less aggression directed at them generally.
Thomas said the survey did not gather data that would allow for a conclusive analysis on the intersection of race and gender biases, such as whether women of color are targeted more often than white women.
The survey also did not ask for information about perpetrators of colleague aggression, so the researchers instead turned to existing theories on gender dynamics to explain the phenomena.
In particular, the authors wrote, female senators who rise through the legislative ranks may be seen as violators of traditional gender norms that dictate what one "ought" to do and not do in society. Increased representation of women in some state senates may also spark fears that the women might someday supplant the men in seats of power.
“For me, the throughline through all our published pieces seems to be that issue of power, leadership positions and more ability to influence what’s going on,” Thomas said. “The more the power structure is threatened, the more of this you’re going to experience if you’re a woman holding these positions.”
Furthermore, the link between increased representation of female senators and increased colleague aggression toward them suggests that a “critical mass” of elected female officials may not be enough to upend unequal treatments of women politicians, the authors wrote.
The trend carries potentially bleak implications for representation in politics. For one, it may strain the senators’ relations on the senate floor, potentially limiting their ability to pass legislation and champion issues that affect women, Thomas said.
Reports of disproportionate harassment of women in power may also discourage potential candidates-in-waiting and even female students from one day running for office, particularly at the federal level.
It’s possible these attacks “would cause women especially to want to curtail current political careers in one way or another, like not running again or not to go to the next level,” Thomas said, adding that at least one Black state senator has indicated that she decided not to seek reelection because of the harassment she’s received.
“What does worry me quite a bit is the kind of vitriol at the federal level right now makes me wonder why anyone wants to run for these offices,” Thomas said. “The people that do are quite amazing in many ways, both good and bad. But I can see [the attacks] making folks who are otherwise interested in the pipeline take a second look, especially when it comes to their families.”
Thomas and Rebekah Herrick, lead author on this paper and an associate professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, have published three other papers that more broadly explore aggressions against American mayors and public backlash against female state senators.
Last month, the pair, alongside researchers from the Mayors Innovation Project at the University of Wisconsin, received a grant from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University to create a biennial survey of mayors that builds on their ongoing project.
In the first studies on mayors, Thomas and Herrick found that over 80% of American mayors from across the country had experienced some form of aggression, and women mayors are twice as likely as their male counterparts to experience psychological abuse and three times more likely to face physical violence on the job.
“In political science, executives are treated differently than legislators: one of one versus one of many,” Thomson explained. “And we expected at the executive level” to find widespread aggression toward mayors given the centralized nature of their office, she added.
Thomas hopes to one day expand her project to explore the gender gap in harassment toward members of Congress, though her attempts to procure data directly from lawmakers have been limited.
For now, Thomas and Herrick plan to continue their research in this vein. They currently have another paper awaiting publication in Politics & Gender in the coming weeks, and the researchers recently completed collecting survey data on harassment toward political candidates. That survey will produce two more papers, Thomas said.
Thomas is also working on a book that will delve into these topics in greater detail.
The paper, “Gender, Power, and Colleague Aggression in U.S. State Senates,” was published Jan. 12 in Political Research Quarterly. It was authored by Rebekah Herrick, an associate professor of political science at Oklahoma State University; Sue Thomas, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation; and Kate Bartholomy, a juris doctor candidate at Arizona State University.