Interview with Catherine Bolzendahl on Women’s Political Empowerment Worldwide

Catherine Bolzendahl, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology of the University of California-Irvine, recently delivered the keynote speech, “Women’s Political Empowerment: A Path toward Progress in Uncertain Times,” at the Politics and Inequality conference held December 2018 in Warsaw, Poland.

Catherine Bolzendahl’s interests are in political change cross-nationally and over time, as well as gender and politics. Her research has appeared in Social Forces, European Sociological Review, and British Journal of Sociology, among others. Her recent book is the co-edited volume, Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Across the Globe: Strategies, Challenges and Future Research (2017, Palgrave).

We asked Professor Bolzendahl, via email, some questions about her research.

At the Politics and Inequality conference, you presented your long-running and varied research on gender and politics in comparative perspective, and what comes next for your research. Looking back, what are some of your most important findings and discoveries?

This is an interesting question because I feel like it is only lately that I’m starting to identify the broader contributions of my current body of work. I’ve always been fundamentally interested in how and why women and men engage with politics and how politics shapes people’s lives as men and women. Of course, this is strongly centered on concerns regarding inequality. My work has led me to a few findings that have been exciting and compelled me to keep digging. First, nations where women have more equality to men politically and economically invest more in social policy generosity. In particular, this contributes to the growing conclusion that women’s political representation changes the policy output in a nation for the better. Second, that we often define politics too narrowly, and in ways that exclude and undervalue women’s contributions as political citizens. This undermines both gender equality and an accurate understanding of women’s political contributions. Third, there is pervasive gender inequality within legislatures, and many are structured to segregate women’s and men’s participation and thus reify patterns of inequality that limit potential for larger change.

What challenges have you faced in conducting or presenting your research on gender?

There are many! As a sociologist, much of my work depends on the larger body of work on gender and politics that exists within the field of political science. Political sociology and political science have long been intertwined and successfully pushed our knowledge forward. However, in sociology, by studying gender, the field does not always know what to do with my work. Political sociology tends to view my work as belonging more to gender and gender scholars see my work as belonging more to political sociology. This makes it difficult to navigate publication outlets, and I often find myself publishing in political science journals. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that issues of gender and politics are of central concern to sociology and work to publish and advocate for such work in the field. Unfortunately, political scientists often do not cite sociology, which may lower my profile in this larger sub-field. By networking across both sociology and political science, I work to counter this, but it is more challenging. Nevertheless, working at the intersections is also, I think, more exciting.

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