Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for U.S. president reignited debate about gender inclusiveness in politics and the rate at which women participate. Many studies have shown that women do not participate as much as men in many aspects of offline politics. Yet this may be changing as a result of new technology. In new research, recently published by the Kennedy School, we ask whether women participate as much as men in online petitions — a new and important way of organizing online.
Women do not participate as much as men in many forms of offline politics
There is some evidence that women in advanced industrial democracies are more likely than men to engage in “thin” forms of participation — such as voting — yet are less likely to engage in “thick” forms — such as donating money or running for office. Lower levels of “thick” participation mean that fewer women are elected to legislatures, which means that policy is plausibly less likely to reflect women’s interests.
In the United States, for instance, women vote regularly in congressional elections, yet only 19.4 percent of congressional members are women. This very low rate explains why the Inter Parliamentary Union ranks the United States 101st in female representation in politics.
New online resources might be changing the balance
This might be changing in at least one dimension: online participation. The Internet has opened up new forms of political participation. Some civic technology enthusiasts have argued that this should lead to more inclusion for women and others, while pessimists worry that online political participation may exclude certain groups from politics.
We have new research that asks whether online participation will follow the pattern of offline thick participation, or make it worse, or alternatively help close the gap in participation and representation between women and men. To figure this out, we look at one of the most common types of online participation: online petitioning. Even though online petition sites are enormous, we do not know very much about how different demographic groups use them or whose interests these petitions reflect.
Men and women seem to have different priorities for online politics
Our study looks at the participation and success of women on Change.org, an online petition website allowing anyone worldwide to create and sign petitions. More than 177 million people have used Change.org. Using a data set of 3.9 million signers of online petitions in 132 countries, we examine the number of successful petitions asking, for example, whether women have more success than men.
Men and women — or at least the ones on Change.org — actually have different policy priorities. Women are disproportionately likely to both create and sign petitions in the categories of animal and women’s rights, whereas men are more likely to create and sign petitions in the categories of economic justice and human rights. Our results also show that online petition signing reproduces the pattern of thin/thick participation seen in representative democracy.
Women are less likely to organize new petitions online. However, they are better at it.
Just as in offline politics, women participate at high rates in the thin form of participation of signing petitions that others have already created. They under-participate in petition creation, a thicker form of participation.
Does that mean that — as in representative democracy — women’s interests are less likely to be taken into account? Or, considering that men are more likely to set the agenda by creating more petitions, do they “capture” Change.org to further their specific policy priorities?
Our most interesting finding is that even if women are less likely to start a petition, their petitions are more likely to be successful. All other things being equal, when petitions have an impact on, for instance, government policy, the agenda being implemented is much closer to the issues women choose to focus on than the issues that men focus on.
This does not, of course, show, that women are somehow better at creating petitions than men; we would need stronger evidence to demonstrate this, since there could be other explanations. It does, however, implicitly suggest that the politics of online petition making is less loaded against women than more traditional offline politics.
These findings also should temper rushed criticisms of “thin” forms of participation, which are often dismissed as “slacktivism,” “clicktivism” and “push-button democracy.” Instead, our results provide some support for the idea that “viral engagement” can have positive consequences for democratic politics.
They also suggest that there may be ways in which women’s preferences can have more consequences for politics if they are expressed through online rather than offline politics. It could be that this is a product of platform design — perhaps Change.org’s design is well suited to mitigating the effects of unequal participation. Figuring this out — and figuring out more generally what is really happening in online petitioning sites — will require more comparative research on more platforms.
Crucially, this research suggests that there may be untapped policy opportunities for women’s preferences to enter the policy arena on topics they view as particularly salient. Indeed, our findings speak to the potential of platform design to offer more meaningfully substantive participation opportunities than the current electoral structure in established democracies provides — shining a light on the possibility of harnessing civic tech platforms’ “big data” to better understand their impact on democratic governance.
Change.org’s design seems to do a commendable job of mitigating the effects of unequal participation — democracy’s unresolved dilemma. And overall, these findings suggest that understanding the potency of women’s issues could provide numerous opportunities for engaging women in policymaking.
Hollie Russon Gilman, a fellow at New America and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and a lecturer at Columbia University, served in President Barack Obama’s administration as an open government and innovation adviser. She is most recently the author of “Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America.” Follow her @hrgilman.
Tiago Peixoto leads the digital engagement evaluation team at the World Bank, where he focuses on working with governments to develop solutions for better public policies and services. Follow him @participatory.
Jonathan Mellon is a research fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. His research interests include electoral behavior, cross-national participation and developing tools for working with big data in social science and social network analysis.
Fredrik M. Sjoberg, senior data scientist at the World Bank, is a political scientist who studies political participation and governance.
This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.