What do you mean by ‘prestige’? A Response to Arriola and Johnson

Leonardo Arriola and Martha Johnson have an interesting piece in the Monkey Cage discussing the types of cabinet level appointments women achieve in sub-Saharan Africa. They find that women are more likely to be appointed to and have longer tenure in medium and low prestige appointments, while men are more likely to be appointed to and stay longer in high prestige positions. They also find that women are more likely to find that their cabinet appointment is a dead end, whereas males are more likely to move up the prestige ladder.  Finally, they show that while men are dispersed across the spectrum of policy areas, women tend to be concentrated in social welfare areas like education, health, and family affairs.  All of this suggests that while there are more women in government as a result of the third wave of democratization, these women are being relegated to traditional “female” roles.

While the piece is informative, I was left wondering – What is a “prestigious” cabinet appointment?  Is this the same across all contexts? And does the level of perceived prestige surrounding an appointment necessarily outweigh individual agency and personality politics?

Arriola and Johnson are not clear how they define or operationalize their “prestige” concept. Their 2013 article in AJPS does not cover the data on types of appointments even though they reference the article as source material.[1]

While this is a worthy and important topic, I fear that as the post is written, “prestige” is assigned to traditionally male dominated roles such as security and economics whereas “non-prestige” and “dead end” appointments are defined as those that are considered typically female dominated such as social welfare, education, and gender.

If so, it should be no surprise that we will find more women holding traditional “female” roles in government and more men holding traditional “male” roles.  Despite the widespread entry of women into public life, particularly government, over the past 50 years, the systematic structural changes needed to produce meaningful shifts in gender norms still lag far behind.  Today women and men still tend to be employed in industries that reflect these norms.[2]

The issue is further complicated by assumptions embedded within the concept of representation.  The scholarship is rife with essays and refereed articles assessing the performance of female politicians based on their ability to speak for and act for the broader population of women (i.e. to provide ‘substantive representation’ for women to borrow from Hanna Pitkin).[3]  This suggests that women are a distinct constituency and that where there is a woman in office, she should be representing that constituency.

Thus, gender norms from the private sphere are replicated in the public sphere.  Yet why are traditional roles for females less prestigious than traditional roles for males? Some might argue this is because women are seen as subordinate to men.  Their work is measured as secondary because of this dynamic, rather than measured based on their true influence or the value of their contribution to society.  What women do is considered less valuable, even when they branch out into male-dominated industries. The so-called gender wage gap could be an empirical way to measure this discrimination.

A better device for measuring the level of “prestige” of a cabinet appointment might be based on the size of the budget for the ministry.  In this way, we can better grasp the reach of the minister in terms of setting policies that are far reaching and that will affect the image of the government.

But this measure still fails to capture the importance of agency and personality politics.  A minister who is appointed to a low-prestige office may be able to wield a high level of influence over the policy process if she is ambitious and/or has personal connections with the executive. Likewise, a high prestige minister may fail to make any impact at all if he lacks ambition and/or has a personality clash with the president.

If cabinet appointments are an informal mechanism for African leaders to co-opt potential rivals or to secure the block vote of a particular ethnic group, then the lazy politician may remain in a high ranking position despite his personal conflict with the president and ineptitude at fulfilling his duties.  Similarly, the ambitious and well-liked minister might find herself stuck in the low prestige appointment if she does not offer anything valuable at the ballot box.

As a result, while we might define the prestige of an appointment based on normative or financial criteria, if the goal is to assess the level of influence that women have on policymaking, prestige is only one of many potential explanatory variables, including agency and personal connections with the executive.

In sum, Arriola and Johnson make a valuable contribution to the literature on gender politics. Their Monkey Cage article should be praised for bringing this into the open and into an accessible setting for scholars and non-scholars alike.  They tackle the question of women’s representation as one of true political empowerment – or women’s presence and equal voice in all levels and aspects of policymaking.  At the same time, there needs to be a careful discussion of what we mean by concepts like “prestige”, even in a policy and mass media forum. Clumsy and implied definitions can often lead to tautological and incomplete sounding arguments.

[1] Arriola, Leonardo and Martha C. Johnson. 2013. “Ethnic Politics and Women’s Empowerment in Africa: Ministerial Appointments to Executive Cabinets.” AJPS, 58:2, pp.495-510. [Gated]

[2] For example see: Hegewisch, Ariane et al. 2010. “Separate but not equal? Gender segregation in the Labor Market and the Gender Wage Gap.” IWPR Publication.

[3] Pitkin, Hanna F. 1972. The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: UC Press.


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