Amid the calls for social justice and freedom that rang out after the 2011 overthrow of autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, many activists also called for gender equality and increased female political participation. Women’s groups and civil society organizations organized marches in support of women’s rights and lobbied the government and political parties for greater female representation in politics. As a result, in its electoral laws for the national parliament, Tunisia required that each electoral list include 50 percent female candidates and that the order of male and female candidates alternate on the list (called vertical parity or a “zipper” system). After 2014, women made up over one-third of country’s national parliament, the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP).
For the municipal elections in 2018, the Tunisian government went further, requiring that any party competing in more than one district must have a woman as the head of half of party lists in the districts in which it competes (called horizontal parity). While this landmark policy helped increase the percent of women on municipal councils to 47 percent, little is known about how voters in the country view female politicians and their political platforms, particularly in a new democracy like Tunisia.
Previous research in the United States has shown that, despite similar backgrounds, women are consistently ranked lower than their male counterparts, often perceived as being less competent and less powerful. In an effort to explain why women in leadership positions face such challenges, social psychologist Alice Eagly advanced role congruity theory, which posits that positive (negative) evaluations of individuals or groups are based on whether they affirm (defy) societal expectations. While there is evidence that suggests women benefit politically from employing gender congruent strategies in pursuit of government positions (e.g., focusing on gender congruent issues like women’s issues, health, and education) in order to avoid punishment for transgressing gender norms, other scholars find that women employing leadership congruent strategies (e.g., focusing on issues like defense and security) are able to improve potential voters’ perception of their leadership traits by conforming to the social norms typically associated with success in a leadership position.
In this manuscript, we conduct a conjoint and a vignette survey experiment to examine the effects of candidate gender and gender- and leadership-congruent political platforms on voter support in Tunisia. As a new democracy and one of the most progressive countries in the MENA region with regard to women’s rights – both in terms of formal legal institutions and civil society activism – Tunisia represents an important case to test role congruity theory. As Figure 1 indicates, we find evidence that female political candidates face bias related to their gender identity. As we might expect, this bias is concentrated among respondents who express patriarchal values. These respondents are over 7 percentage points less likely to prefer to a female candidate to a male.
Figure 1: Average Marginal Component Effects (AMCE), YouGov survey (April 2019)
However, female candidates can gain additional political support when they run on a platform that is congruent with leadership roles (e.g., security). Notably, this increase is shared across respondents with gender egalitarian and patriarchal values. The experimental results support an interpretation of role congruity theory in which a preference for a candidate who emphasizes leadership issues is shared broadly, but patriarchal respondents, in particular, express a strong preference for male candidates (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Vignette results, YouGov survey (April 2019)
As such, our study suggests that female candidates who emphasize issues congruent with stereotypes of political leadership, such as security, can increase voter support, though male candidates also benefit from emphasizing those issues. For this reason, there may be more competition for government positions related to defense and security, and political gatekeepers may assign that work more to male candidates. Indeed, looking at the membership of the special commissions in the Tunisian parliament, we find that women are overrepresented on the Women, Family, Youth, and Elderly commission and underrepresented on the Security and Defense commission (Figure 3). Our article suggests that these politicians working on gender issues may not be rewarded politically for that important public service. These considerations are particularly important as the recent October 2019 legislative elections witnessed a decrease in the number of women in the national parliament from over 30 percent to approximately 25 percent.
Figure 3: Percentage of female MPs on parliamentary special commissions, 2015-2019.
Note: The dashed line is the overall percentage of women in the Tunisian parliament.
Our research indicates that women in Tunisia still face gender bias from voters, though this is primarily concentrated among voters with patriarchal attitudes. Candidate platforms focused on women’s issues, however, remain broadly unpopular. Accordingly, while gender quotas were an important step in promoting female political representation, a critical way for the government to improve the position of female politicians and candidates is to increase the opportunities for female politicians to serve in leadership positions within the political parties and government that are not stereotypically associated with women. For instance, appointing women to serve on parliamentary committees focused on security or defense may help create a positive association between women and leadership on critical issue areas in the minds of voters.