Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Alissandra T. Stoyan – Gendered Opportunities and Constraints: How Executive Sex and Approval Influence Executive Decree Issuance

This is a guest post by Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Alissandra T. Stoyan. It is based on their paper in Political Research Quarterly.

Over the last two decades democracies worldwide have elected record-setting numbers of women presidents – in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Liberia, Philippines, South Korean, and Taiwan to name just a few. One of the most frequently touted benefits of electing women to any office is the expectation that they tend to rely on or prefer a model of leadership based on negotiation and consensus-building. Indeed, that very quality is often highlighted by journalism about women’s political successes or sometimes promoted by women themselves.

Portrayals like this are typically built on the actions and behaviors of women legislators, or the behavior of legislatures with substantial proportions of female members. Legislatures may lend themselves to studies of gender and leadership styles or preferences because there are relatively more women legislators to evaluate. Legislatures also vary in the size of their female contingents, so it is possible to compare outcomes across different levels of female representation. Perhaps most importantly, it is also easier to understand why negotiation and consensus might be useful for governance: legislatures are themselves collective bodies that must form at least a majority to accomplish most tasks.

Conversely, it has been difficult for political scientists to study how leadership styles might translate to governance strategies of presidents. Although women presidents are more common today, they are still relatively rare. Furthermore, presidents may need to work with legislative counterparts to affect the policy agenda, but they also often have a range of unilateral powers at their disposal. This may reduce their reliance on or preference for negotiation and consensus. How might we expect the assumptions about women’s leadership styles to shape women’s use of their unilateral presidential powers, such as the ability to issue executive decrees?

In our new work, we use a paired-comparative approach to evaluate rates of executive decree issuance in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica between 2000 and 2014. In each case, a woman president succeeded a man from the same political party. The advantage of this research design is that each pair of presidents faced the same institutional constraints, the same or highly similar partisan opponents, and the same or similar own-party policy preferences. This means we can eliminate a host of alternative factors that might explain variation in decree issuance. Instead, we are able to narrow our focus to the effect of gender on a president’s tendency to make use of her or his unilateral decree power.

We find that gender by itself matters somewhat to rates of decree issuance; women do appear less likely to rule by decree overall. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina) and Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica) are much less likely to use such power compared to their predecessors, while Michelle Bachelet (Chile) is slightly less likely to do so and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) issues decrees at higher rates than her predecessor. Collectively this provides some evidence that there is a gender-based difference in the use of this type of presidential authority.

However, a more nuanced look at when and why presidents wield such power reveals additional information about the gender-based difference. Presidents are presumed to have the option of “going public” in order to influence the policy agenda. For example, a president may consider that high public approval ratings indicate a public mandate or support for action. Rather than trying to bargain or work with congress to pass legislation, a popular president may feel confident in issuing more decrees to accomplish her or his policy goals. A president motivated to work collaboratively or build consensus should be less interested in this “go public” option, and should rely on it less frequently.

When we account for a president’s approval rating, we see very different trends emerge in the decree issuance of women and men presidents. This figure shows that the (relatively low) rate at which women issue decrees is largely unaffected by how popular they are with the public. In contrast, men become much more likely to issue decrees as they get more popular. The gap in decree issuance by women and men is widest and most consistent with high levels of approval, but this gap narrows as presidents face declining approval that prevents them from being able to assert their will.

Scholars have often assumed that Latin American presidents are prone to abusing their unilateral authority, especially when they are or become more popular. At higher levels of popularity, presidents might be emboldened to “go public” with their policy preferences, rather than wasting their time and resources negotiating with the legislature. What we find suggests that this assumption may be true for Latin America’s presidentes in general, but that its presidentas tend to be less abusive of their authority even when they are popular enough to potentially do so.

As more women run for high office around the world, it seems important to consider this evidence of gendered differences in leadership that point to a new model of presidential self-restraint. Further analysis could illuminate distinctions in women’s motivations for governing as they do, in terms of both their strategic motivations and also the substance of the policies they may pursue.

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