For the past seven years, Abbylin Sellers, an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science, has been investigating the correlation between descriptive representation, which is when the voter can physically identify with a candidate, and an individual’s efficacy to engage in politics. Her study sought to find out if female voters were more likely to participate in politics when both genders are represented among candidates.
Recently, Sellers cowrote the article, “An Experimental Investigation of Whether the Presence of Women in Elected Office Increases Female Political Engagement“ with research lead Jennifer Merolla and colleague Janine Kraybill. The paper was presented in January at the 87th annual conference of the Southern Political Science Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Sellers said Merolla, one of her professors at Claremont Graduate School, is a great mentor for student researchers.
Sellers said she desired to know how people evoked descriptive representation when voting and what motivates them to engage in the political system.
“[We] started off examining minority political behavior,” Sellers said. “We’ve done a couple of articles that have looked at Latinos and African Americans, asking the questions, ‘Do they feel more trusting in government?’ or ‘Are they more likely to engage in politics or more likely to vote or reach out to their representative if they have a representative that looks like them?’”
The findings were recorded in an article “Descriptive Representation, Political Efficacy and African Americans in the 2008 Presidential Election” published in Political Psychology Journal in 2013. These results contributed evidence “linking descriptive representation to increased feelings of efficacy, that having a descriptive representative at the national level increases feelings of political efficacy.”
This minority research led to a discussion of gender and the likely chances for women to vote for women running for office, a popular field of study.
“But what makes our research different from what’s already been out there is that we are not using observational data, [which] makes it difficult to tease out causality. What’s causing these women to feel more trusting, efficacious, engaged? We have an experimental design that we did instead,” Sellers said.
This research abstract reads: “to assess whether a sex of a representative increases trust in engagement with politics among members of the same sex when party or ideological information is absent.“
However, there have been limited significant results thus far.
“After we planned our analysis, we found limited support for the descriptive representation hypothesis with respect to engagement, and we did not have any support for being more trusting,“ Sellers said.
Sellers, Merolla and Kraybill presented their research at the Southern Political Science Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico in January.
“It was a great experience. You have peers listen to your presentation and provide feedback before you send it off to a journal,” Sellers said.
Daniel Palm, chair of the Department of History and Political Science, said department faculty members were excited about Sellers’ conference participation.
“Our department, our dean and the university as a whole always encourage scholarship and conference participation. Most people in academia enjoy going to conferences because we have the chance to meet and participate with our peers who are also specialists in particular areas,” Palm said. “It’s very exciting that we can do that as faculty, and her department colleagues are really enthusiastic and happy that she could make it there.”
This experimentation comes at an important political season in the nation.
“I think the effect of having a woman run for high elective office such as the president does encourage other women to become more engaged,” Sellers said.
Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 democratic vice presidential nominee, once said “Every time a woman runs, all women win.”
In 2015, women made up 19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress and 22.3 percent of state-level political positions.
“Women make up more than 50 percent of the population of the United States, but they’re clearly still underrepresented within national government,” Sellers said.
Sophomore political science major Jenevie Riojas calls for more female representation in politics.
“In a strong feministic era, a large amount of women I think will want and need to have a female in office. I, myself, would vote for a female to be elected into office. Women, especially in a political aspect, should have the same opportunities and abilities as dominant males have,” Riojas said.
The future for this descriptive representation project could take different avenues, including more article publications and possibly a book publication.
“Just because it’s not producing doesn’t mean you give up. It keeps evolving [and] that’s why I stay on the project,” Sellers said.