Our research shows that the Democrats have delivered increases in economic gender equality. More precisely, our study shows that when Democrats control state legislatures, women’s income, wages and unemployment all improve substantially, relative to those of men.
Here’s how we did our research
To assess whether Democratic or Republican control of state legislatures affects gender inequality in the workplace, we tracked male and female wages, income, poverty and employment in each state annually for a little over three decades. We used data from the Census Bureau’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey. We then looked to see if women were catching up to men faster when Democrats controlled the levers of state power then when Republicans did. Further, we employed two statistical techniques — regression discontinuity and difference-in-difference analysis — that allow us to isolate the effect of party control from other factors.
In the first analysis, we compared changes in gender equality in states where Democrats barely won a majority in the house to states where Republicans barely won a majority — over 500 contests from 1980 to 2014. Any difference in gender outcomes between Democratic control and Republican control in these close “coin-toss” states can be attributed to whichever party actually takes over. What we found is that electing Democrats into the majority leads to substantial declines in the ratio of male to female wages and the overall male-female income gap — especially in recent years when the two parties have been increasingly polarized on the issues.
Women’s wages have averaged less than 70 percent of men’s wages across the years in our study. But just a couple of years after Democrats are elected in a coin-toss state, that gap typically declines by 3.6 percentage points more than it does when Republicans win the coin toss. Similarly, we estimate that a slim Democratic majority in the legislature’s lower chamber — as opposed to a slim Republican majority — leads to an average 2.6 percent point decline in that state’s overall income gap between men and women.
A second test covering the same set of years and 49 of the 50 states (leaving out Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature) led to similar conclusions. Here we found that Democratic control of the lower house (as compared to Republican control) led to significant improvement in female income compared to male income; significant declines in female unemployment compared to male unemployment; and some signs of declines in wage and poverty gaps. Again, the effects of partisan control were sizable. We estimate that since 2000 an average year of Democratic control has led to a one percentage point increase in the female-male income ratio; a 0.7 percentage point decline in the wage gap; a 0.4 percent point decline in the female-male employment gap; and a 0.29 percent point decline in the male-female poverty gap.
Overall, our results suggest that electing Democrats to office reduces gender inequality in basic economic outcomes.
How do Democrats do it?
In our study, we couldn’t definitely determine what Democrats are doing to drive these declines. But we are able to show that two factors are associated with the gains for women under Democrats. The first is gender policy. Democratic control of the House leads to significantly more liberal policies on gender discrimination and access to family planning. The other factor is female representation. We find — as others have in the past — that having more women in office also leads to more liberal gender policy and probably contributes to improvement on basic economic indicators for women. Interestingly, the effects of female representation and Democrat control are intricately linked. Any impact of female legislators is entirely contingent on having Democrats control the lower chamber. Having women in office affects gender policy, but only when Democrats control the legislative agenda in the lower chamber.
When does party control matter?
As far as we can tell, partisan control of the governor’s office has no clear impact on gender equality. We didn’t do much to directly assess the effect of Democratic control of the state senate, largely due to data limitations. But our exploratory analysis revealed no clear effects here either. Our analysis also indicates that parties matter much more when they are polarized — as they are now — than when they aren’t as far apart ideologically, as was true for much of the 20th century.
Zoltan L. Hajnal is a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego and the author of “Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
John Kuk (@ithink02) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies racial, economic, gender, and housing inequality in the United States.