IPP Policy Brief n°51 - March 2020

Gender discrimination and local elections

IPP Policy Brief n°51

March 2020

Authors : Jean-Benoît Eyméoud, Paul Vertier

Contact : jeanbenoit.eymeoud@sciencespo.fr, paul.vertier@sciencespo.fr


logo-pdf-minGender discrimination and local elections




The under-representation of women in politics is a widely shared observation, but the reasons for this under-representation are still imperfectly understood and are the subject of much debate. Among the possible explanations, the hypothesis of voter discrimination against women is frequently proposed but rarely substantiated. This study attempts to test this hypothesis in the case of France. For this, we exploit an unprecedented natural experiment that took place in France in March 2015 as part of the departmental elections. For the first time, candidates did not stand alone and were instead obliged to run as equal pairs, composed of a man and a woman. The law also required that the order of appearance on the ballot be based on alphabetical order, which led half of the pairs to have a woman in first position and vice versa. This historic change in the electoral process may have led some voters to pay more attention to the candidate in first position on the ballot, thinking that this candidate would receive more prerogatives than the one in second position. This reform constitutes an ideal analytical framework for assessing the presence of gender discrimination and analyzing its determining factors: by comparing the votes received by pairs with a woman in first and second positions, and insofar as the gender of the first candidate is random, we are able to precisely identify the existence of voter discrimination against women. Finally, we identify substantial discrimination towards female candidates affiliated with right-wing parties, which affected the outcome of the election. The reference study also shows that the gender bias of voters depends not only on the amount of information available on ballots, but also on existing discrimination in the local labor market.

Key points:

  • Women are under-represented in politics, especially at local level: 42% of the deputies are women and only 16% of the mayors.
  • The 2015 departmental elections established parity by obliging candidates to run in mixed pairs: each pair is made up of a man and a woman. The law also requires that the order of appearance of candidates on the ballot correspond to alphabetical order: one in two men take first place, and vice versa.
  • Some voters may have focused their attention only on the name of the first candidate. However, since the order of appearance of candidates is random and is not related to their prerogatives once elected, the gender of the first candidate should not affect the vote. If pairs in which women are named first receive fewer votes than others, this signals the existence of gender discrimination among voters.
  • By analyzing the differences in electoral performance of the pairs with a woman or a man in first position, we show that only right-wing pairs with a woman in first position were discriminated against by their voters: on average, they lost 1.5 percentage points of the vote in the first round (about 5% of the average share received by a right-wing pair), which was not the case for the other political groups.
  • The resulting loss of votes changed the result of the election: affected pairs saw their probability of going to the second round or winning the election decrease by 5%.

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