Contagious Representation: Women's Political Representation in Democracies



Book Review: Contagious Representation: Women’s Political Representation in Democracies around the World by Frank C. Thames and Margaret S. Williams
Gender & Society
Page numbers: 

Summary of book review:

In Contagious Representation: Women's Political Representation in Democracies around the World, Frank Thames and Margaret Williams investigate women's political representation in executive, legislative and judicial offices in 159 countries across more than 60 years.

The authors propose that the social science concept of contagion could explain the variation in the timing and depth that women have become represented in the institutions of the world's democracies. They define three mechanisms where contagion could operate:

  1. As women make up a larger share of selectors within an institution, their numbers within that institution should increase.
  2. If one institution increases its share of women, the perceived risk of diversifying other institutions decreases.
  3. An institution may add women to increase legitimacy and provide a strategic advantage over other institutions.

Their research supports some elements of their contagion hypothesis including:

  • An increase in the number of women within the legislature increases the chances of the selection of a female president or prime minister. Though, interestingly, the reverse is not true.
  • In OECD countries, greater women's legislative representation also leads to more women on high courts.
  • Party quotas for greater gender balance are contagious across parties and increase the likelihood of national quotas.


Thumbnail image: courtesy of NYU Press

Melanie Hughes

University of Pittsburgh

Published Date
August 1, 2014