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Of women, Parliament, and macroscopes

Speed read
  • Examination of speeches in the British House of Commons leads to greater insight about role of women in politics
  • Text mining techniques allow historians to remove personal bias from textual analysis
  • Increase of women in Parliament leads to change in language of debate

Ever since women obtained the right to vote — 1920 in the US, 1918 in the UK — many have argued that women must also be equally represented as legislators for their concerns to be clearly heard.

Conventional wisdom holds that female politicians take a stronger interest than their male colleagues in advocating on behalf of so-called ‘women’s issues’ such as abortion, equal pay, childcare, and education.

A new study from England attempts to find out if those beliefs are true. Luke Blaxill, Drapers’ Company Junior Research Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford, and Kaspar Beelen at the University of Toronto used text mining techniques to analyze every word spoken in the British House of Commons since 1945 and understand how the contributions of women parliamentarians differed from their male colleagues.<strong>Let's talk about sex. </strong> Most 'female' and most 'male' words in Parliamentary speeches since 1945. Top three for women: child, woman, health. Top three for men: argument, force, proposition. Courtesy Luke Blaxill.  

“Distant reading, which computers have only recently enabled, is the new way of looking at things,” says Blaxill. “Something that seems like a significant difference to the naked eye may be shown through text mining to be not very discernable from a computerized point of view.” 

Under the macroscope

Blaxill accessed a specially coded digital corpus of British parliamentary speeches through the Dilipad project (Digging into Linked Parliamentary Data).

A collaboration between institutions in the UK, Netherlands, and Canada, Dilipad contains digitized parliamentary proceedings for participating countries, including UK House of Commons debates from 1803 to the present. Dilipad added the crucial ability to filter the text by party, gender, and status of MP.

Blaxill and Beelen examined the total corpus of Parliamentary speeches — 677,183,827 words. At an average reading speed of 200-words-per-minute, this would take a reader (working 7-hour days) 8,062 days — that’s 22 years!

In addition to the time it takes to read the documents, the traditional practice of close reading relies upon the scholar's ability to uncover multiple emerging patterns empirically, a task that the human mind (optimized for qualitative rather than quantitative analytical tasks) is poorly equipped to perform. Individual interpretations inevitably become selective, and consequently become vulnerable to the researcher’s own biases.

“Text mining is useful because it supplies historians dealing with unreadably huge texts with a macroscope — a means of empirically analyzing typicality, common concepts, and semantic associations across the whole body of a given discourse,” says Blaxill. 

Women’s words

To study the impact of female legislators, Blaxill measured direct references to women in Parliamentary speeches by focusing on the use of the words ‘woman’ and ‘women’ or words synonymous with women (e.g., 'female,' 'widow,' 'daughter,' 'femin*').

<strong>Speaking of women.</strong> The average female MP makes considerably more speeches about women than the average male MP, in all parliaments since 1945. Courtesy Luke Blaxill.

“Perhaps intuitively, the proportion of speeches ‘about women’ correlates with their rising presence in the Commons,” says Blaxill.

Blaxill also directly compared the speeches of male and female Parliamentarians, looking for words that appeared as significant markers for each gender. In the speeches of female MPs, words like ‘women,’ ‘children,’ ‘babies,’ and ‘school’ were most prevalent, regardless of time period.

For male MPs, the strongest linguistic markers were ‘military vehicles,’ ‘weapons,’ the names of countries and locations, and terms of debate such as ‘argument’ and ‘force.’

Interestingly, though more women MPs were representatives of the liberal Labour Party, Blaxill found no significant difference between the speeches of Labour and Conservative women.

Reading results

The analysis confirms the gendered qualities and policy preferences which have traditionally been associated with male and female politicians. Women continue to prioritize topics such as social services, education, and welfare and focus more closely on women in their speech-making than do male politicians.

“But we found that the overall differences between male and female word choice reduced over time,” adds Blaxill.

<strong>He said, she said. </strong> Researchers from the University of Toronto and Hertford College, Oxford conducted a text mining analysis to uncover the linguistic differences between male and female Parliamentarians. Courtesy David Iliff. <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/legalcode'>(CC BY-SA 2.5).</a>

“When women were a very small minority of the House of Commons in the 1950s, it was difficult for women to talk about anything that wasn’t a small range of social issues —  education and childcare, for instance,” says Blaxill. “But as the number of women has increased, their presence in Parliament has become more normal and they may feel less of an obligation to act as tokens for high visibility women’s issues and more likely to represent any issue.”

An additional effect of the presence of more women in Parliament has been to shift men toward the issues historically favored by women.

In public debate over emotional topics such as politics, people tend to make assertions based upon strongly held beliefs in the absence of facts and data. One purpose of this study was to attempt to discover if assertions about women in politics had any foundation in empirical evidence.

Says Blaxill, “If it’s actually true that female representatives do practice politics differently, then the argument for affirmative action to put more women and other underrepresented groups in Parliament is a lot stronger. In this respect, our analysis presents a mixed picture: on the one hand, we found continued robust difference in policy priorities from women, but on the other hand, we found this effect weakening as the number of women legislators has increased."

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