Women, Men and the Representation of Women in the British Parliaments: Magic numbers? by Anna Manasco Dionne, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010, pp.256, £65.00 hb, ISBN: 978 0 7190 7959 7

Reviewer: Fiona Buckley*

In this book, Anna Manasco Dionne contributes to the growing number of critiques of the critical mass theory. Dionne aims to illustrate the conceptual shortcomings of the descriptive-substantive relationship or critical mass hypothesis that has underpinned representational research in the field of women in politics for more than thirty years. By comparing the parliamentary activities and policy preferences of women parliamentarians with those of their male counterparts in the British parliaments (House of Commons and the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the book challenges the notion that women’s political representation will be advanced only in a parliament with high numbers of women. The book does not aim to diminish the significance of women’s parliamentary presence. Rather, it “attempts to understand the more subtle influences of numbers” (p. 37) on the promotion of women’s interests. It illustrates that women politicians do advance women’s political representation but do not monopolise this domain. Empirical evidence, through the use of interviews and the development of a comprehensive database of representatives’ legislative activities, shows that male politicians also promote women’s issues in parliament.

The book is structured around four hypotheses: the difference hypothesis suggesting that women and men legislate differently, with women more likely than men to initiate attention to women’s issues; the threshold hypothesis suggesting that women’s presence (at least 10 to 20 per cent) is necessary for their substantive representation; the positive impact hypothesis suggesting that gender differences impact on the business of the Parliament because, as women’s presence increases, the attention to women’s issues improves; and the curvilinear hypothesis suggesting that gender differences operate differently across Parliaments, and that attention to women’s issues may improve less at higher levels than at lower levels of women’s political representation. Interviews with over eighty parliamentarians and the gathering of data on representatives’ legislative activities (motions, parliamentary questions, bills sponsored) allow Dionne to explore these hypotheses.

She finds that women continue to find substantive representation more difficult in parliaments with fewer women. However, the substantive representation of women occurs in instances of low female presence (at the time of writing, women politicians accounted for 18 and 13.8 per cent of members of the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly respectively) as well as in situations of high female presence (at the time of writing, women politicians accounted for 37.2 and 42 per cent of members of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly of Wales respectively). Dionne finds that “small group size did not obviously hinder” women’s political representation or prevent “men or political parties from representing women’s issues” (p. 166). Dionne concludes that the politics of presence is more complex than the current critical mass concept allows. She argues that, to over-simplify the critical mass concept and ignore its complexities and multi-faceted features, is to allow it to under-perform as a concept. Attention must be paid to “nuances among multiple representational dimensions – gender, activities and institutions” in the discussion of women’s political representation (p.180).

This study is limited in ways, most notably, as the author notes, in that it studied institutions at different stages of existence (p.183). Some were old (the House of Commons), some were new (the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales) and, at the time of writing, some were very vulnerable (the Northern Ireland Assembly). There is no accounting for the effect of institutional newness or oldness on women’s political representation. However the study of four legislatures does capture the multifaceted and dynamic nature of the attention which parliaments give to women’s issues.

Dionne’s findings should not be misinterpreted as an argument against the election of more women in the political arena. On the contrary, it is a study that contributes much to our understanding of the political representation of women and the essential need for women in politics. “This study does not undermine the importance of presence at all. The core argument is that understanding the nuances of number is essential to appreciate them fully” (p.185).

© 2012, The Author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.