This was not the first time that the Trump administration had shown pictures of all-male groups making policy on women. In January, for instance, the president signed an antiabortion order — reinstating what’s known as the “global gag rule” — surrounded by men.
In both cases, the Internet was atwitter with outrage. At the New York Times, Jill Filipovic even speculated that Trump’s all-male optics were an intentional appeal to his mostly male base of supporters.
Public outrage when groups of men are making decisions about women’s lives has been with us for a while. In 2012, the Internet went into spasms when Rep. Darrell Issa convened a congressional committee hearing on contraceptive coverage with only male panelists. And in 1991, famously, an all-male, all-white congressional committee interrogated Anita Hill — a black woman — about being sexually harassed. The outrage lasted into the next election, buoying more women into office.
Whether the Trump administration has purposely staged and released the all-white-male photos, our research suggests that this approach will backfire. All-male decision-making bodies erode citizens’ confidence in their political institutions. This is true for both men and women — and even for Republicans.
How we studied U.S. public perceptions of all-male decision-making bodies
In November 2016, we ran a series of survey experiments. We asked a representative sample of Americans to read a fictitious newspaper article about an eight-member state legislative committee evaluating sexual harassment policies. We varied the article so that some respondents read about a panel consisting of eight men, while others read about four men and four women. We asked how citizens felt about the panel when it made a decision that either restricted or advanced women’s rights — here, either decreasing or increasing penalties for those found to have sexually harassed others in the workplace.
We asked respondents for their personal opinions about the decision; whether the decision was right and fair; how they felt about the decision-making process; and whether they trusted the panel. Our design allows us to see whether and how citizens perceive their governing institutions differently based on whether women were involved in making decisions.
Nobody likes all-male panels
Here’s what we found: Citizens don’t like all-male panels.
As we show in the figure below, when all-male committees decrease penalties for sexual harassers, U.S. respondents are less likely to say they agree with the decision and less likely to view the outcome as right for citizens or fair to women. They are also more likely to view the procedure as unfair, more likely to think the decision should be overturned, and report less trust in the panel.
When female legislators are involved, respondents view both the decision and the decision-making process much more favorably.
Men especially dislike women’s exclusion
How do American men feel about all-male panels? They dislike them even more than American women do. As you can see, while both men and women think more highly of decisions made by a gender-balanced panel, the effect is much larger for our male respondents. Men increase their agreement with the decision twice as much as women do when the decision is made by a gender-balanced group than when the committee is all male.
Why? Our research shows that women are more likely than men to view sexual harassment as an important issue. Because women have stronger opinions about the outcome than men (whether they’re for or against reducing penalties), the panel’s gender composition is less likely to sway their feelings about the decision itself.
Even Republicans dislike all-male panels
What about Republican respondents? Our findings suggest that if the Trump team is strategically trying to show that men are in charge of the decisions, they’ve taken the wrong approach. As with our broader sample, the figure below shows that our Republican respondents are also less likely to support rolling back women’s rights when an all-male panel makes this decision.
What’s more, leaving women out of decision-making more broadly damages Republicans’ faith in their political institutions.
Republicans might prefer outcomes that restrict women’s rights, but appear to believe that women’s presence helps legitimate these decisions.
Excluding women from decisions makes U.S. citizens distrust their government — even when the decision favors women
But what if men decided to increase penalties for sexual harassers? In this case, women’s presence doesn’t affect respondents’ perceptions of the decision itself. But having women involved in the decisions significantly improves citizens’ perceptions of the decision-making process and their trust in their political institutions.
In sum, male dominance corrodes citizens’ faith in their political institutions — especially when the group rolls back women’s rights, but even when it doesn’t.
Amanda Clayton is an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. She studies representation and political behavior with a focus on gender and politics.
Diana Z. O’Brien is an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of women’s access to political power.
Jennifer M. Piscopo is an assistant professor of politics at Occidental College. She studies Latin America, women and politics, and public policy.