Are Female Political Leaders Role Models? Lessons from Asia

AuthorShan-Jan Sarah Liu
Date01 June 2018
Published date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
745162PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917745162Political Research QuarterlyLiu
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 255 –269
Are Female Political Leaders Role
© 2018 University of Utah
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Models? Lessons from Asia
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917745162
Shan-Jan Sarah Liu 1
Despite vast research on women’s descriptive representation, little is known about its influence on women’s political
engagement in East and Southeast Asia where gender norms are different from those in other parts of the world. I
theorize that the discrepancy between women’s political and social rights in the region makes it difficult for women
to envision themselves as equal to their male counterparts. Thus, women are less reluctant to play a “man’s game”
even when they see female political leaders. Using a multilevel model with data from the Asian Barometer Survey and
various additional sources, I examine the impact of female parliamentarians in the region and find that they significantly
reduce women’s political participation. My results suggest that the female legislators’ role model effect found in
existing literature on Western democracies does not apply to East and Southeast Asia. Instead, female political leaders
generate a backlash effect on women’s political engagement. This research raises implications for the role of context
in the effectiveness of women’s symbolic representation and calls for further exploration on the connection between
women’s symbolic and descriptive representation.
gender and politics, Asian politics, women’s political representation, women’s political participation
When Taiwan’s female president Tsai Ing-Wen, along
in which a cue may be exercised and perceived. Seldom
with 43 women, making up 38 percent of the national leg-
does research consider the possibility that the connection
islature and exceeding its quota, was elected in 2016, the
between descriptive and symbolic representation could
international media called Taiwan “the place to be a
be context specific and could hence generate varying
woman in politics” (Sui 2016). While the emphasis on the
expectations and outcomes for women in the political
success of female politicians overlooks other aspects of
process. Expanding upon Norris and Inglehart’s (2001)
patriarchal practices in Taiwan, women’s political pres-
study on gender and culture, this article argues that the
ence is often seen as overcoming a barrier to gender
way culture is gendered matters for how the symbolic
equality. How such representation might combat the his-
meaning of women’s representation is carried out. I con-
torical exclusion of women in the political process has
tend that the current understanding of the impact of wom-
also been increasingly studied. Some current research is
en’s political representation on women’s political
built on the premise that female political leaders fill the
participation is not generalizable across contexts. In con-
void for the “cue” that supposedly enables women to
texts where women’s descriptive representation can indi-
envision themselves as equal counterparts to men—that
cate gender equality, female legislators can thus act as
is, enabling them to play a “man’s game” (Barnes and
role models in encouraging women to participate in poli-
Burchard 2013; Kittilson and Schwindt-Bayer 2010; Liu
tics (Atkeson 2003; Hansen 1997). Nevertheless, the
and Banaszak 2017; Mansbridge 1999; Pearson and
symbolic signal of women’s political representation can
Dancey 2011; Phillips 1995; Young 2002). In particular,
also work differently in other contexts, especially when
some studies find that female legislators signal to the
the cue is not sufficient to stimulate women to envision
public that women are as capable as men to rule, as well
themselves to be equal to their male counterparts. The
as motivate women to actively engage in politics
(Alexander 2012; Beaman et al. 2009; Beaman et al.
1Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
2012; Campbell and Wolbrecht 2006; Fox and Lawless
2004; Wolbrecht and Campbell 2007).
Corresponding Author:
Shan-Jan Sarah Liu, School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology,
While this cue could be effective in prompting women
Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK.
to participate in politics, overlooked is the role of context

Political Research Quarterly 71(2)
link between women’s political representation and politi-
multifaceted and that the symbolic presence of women
cal engagement becomes more complex in situations
may not always improve gender egalitarianism of a state.
where a huge gap exists between power obtained by
The negative correlation in my analysis raises questions
female leaders in the political structure and (the lack of)
on the applicability of the Western feminist understanding
power legitimated by ordinary women in the social
of the role model effect to evaluating women’s political
representation and participation in ESA.
This article examines female parliamentarians’
In the rest of the article, I first provide an overview of
influence on women’s political engagement in East and
current scholarship on the role of female politicians as
Southeast Asia (hereafter ESA). I develop a theoretical
role models and any lasting societal effects from this
framework on how women’s descriptive representation in
development. Second, I unpack the notion that the impact
ESA differs in its translation to symbolic representation.1
of women’s descriptive representation on political behav-
I hypothesize that female legislators in ESA do not serve
ior may differ in ESA by investigating the unique gender
as role models by increasing women’s political engage-
norms in ESA. I then present my data and methodology,
ment. Contrary to what scholars have found, my results
results, and analysis. Last, I conclude by discussing the
demonstrate that female legislators discourage women’s
implications of my findings and identifying areas for fur-
political engagement in ESA.
ther exploration on this topic.
This article contributes to the study of women and
politics in two major ways. First, it explores the impact of
Women’s Symbolic Representation:
women’s political representation on women’s political
Female Political Leaders Serving as
participation in ESA, a grossly understudied area. While
Role Models
women’s representation has been found to have a positive
impact on women’s political activity, most research is
Women’s presence in politics has improved throughout
restricted to cases in North America and Europe, with a
time; however, women still remain largely underrepre-
few exceptions on Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa
sented on a global average of 22 percent at the lower
(e.g. Barnes and Burchard 2013; Clayton 2015; Desposato
house (Inter-Parliamentary Union [IPU] 2017). Women’s
and Norrander 2009; Karp and Banducci 2008; Zetterberg
political representation is generally coveted as it indicates
2009). Whether ESA female legislators provide symbolic
that a country has high gender development. Nonetheless,
cues and stimulate women to take political actions is
women’s political representation comes in multiple forms2
unknown. To my knowledge, the influence of female par-
and the meaning and impact of each form also varies. On
liamentarians on women’s political engagement in ESA
the one hand, women’s political representation must have
has not been explored beyond single-case studies. The
substantive implications as female politicians are expected
lack of a systematic, comparative focus on women’s
to act in the interest of those with whom they share similar
political representation and participation in ESA limits
characteristics (Pitkin 1967). On the other hand, women’s
the conclusions that can be drawn from existing models.
political representation is desirable because it has an aim
This research thus broadens the conceptual framework of
to transform society (Phillips 1995). The changes that
symbolic representation by considering how the influ-
female politicians bring about should not be limited to
ence of women’s political representation might differ by
their legislative efforts and achievements. Their impact
beyond political institutions, for example, how they may
The unknowns make ESA an interesting region to study.
improve women’s societal status or shatter gender expec-
Many of the ESA countries have recently undergone dem-
tations should also be considered.
ocratic transitions, rapid economic growth, and significant
Departing from female politicians’ substantive impact,
variation in women’s representation in the national legisla-
scholars have increasingly realized that women in politics
ture. In 2017, the legislative seats held by women ranged
“stand as symbols for other women” in “enhancing their
from 5 percent in Thailand to 38 percent in Taiwan. In
identification with the system and their ability to have
addition, Indonesia, India, South Korea, the Philippines,
influence within it” (Burrell 1995, 151). Extant evidence
Taiwan, and Thailand have all elected a woman as the head
demonstrates that increases in women’s political repre-
of the state in the past while the People’s Republic...

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