Women’s Representation and Gender Dynamics in Latvian Politics: A Report on the 2019–2020 AABS Emerging Scholars Grant

Dec 17, 2020

My Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS) 2019–2020 Emerging Scholars Grant was used to support fieldwork research on “Women’s Representation and Gender Dynamics in Latvian Politics.” With the support of this grant, I was able to travel to Latvia to conduct participant observation in the Latvian Saeima, perform elite interviews with female members of parliament, and gather archival and statistical data. This grant was the first fieldwork-oriented research project since my dissertation and was an integral step in my career moving me towards earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor at Millikin University.

Laura Dean. © Laura Dean, 2020.

The aim of this project was to examine the role of women and the gender dynamics, both feminist and anti-feminist, in Latvian politics. Latvia provides a unique opportunity for this type of applied gender research because members of parliament (MPs) are more accessible and can provide insight that would inform different areas of political science research. The 2018 parliamentary elections were a watershed year for women in Latvian politics, increasing the number of women from 18% to 31% and improving Latvia’s ranking from 124th in the world for women’s representation to 44th place.

Latvia is the highest-ranking country in Eastern Europe without institutional mechanisms to increase women’s participation. This makes it an interesting case to examine the role of women in politics because it is ranked fourth in Eastern Europe for women’s representation (behind North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Belarus) but has no gender quotas mandated in the constitution or law to ensure gender equality in politics. The overarching goal of my research was to examine if this increase in women made a difference for both substantive and descriptive representation in Latvia.

I was granted Institutional Review Board approval for my research project from my university in the United States and also granted access to perform political ethnographic observations of the parliamentary sittings in the Saeima for the winter and spring sessions. With assistance from the AABS grant, I observed 13 regular plenary sittings of the Saeima, 50 extraordinary sessions, and one ceremonial sitting. All the regular sittings were in-person observations and all but two of the extraordinary sittings were online. I was sitting in the Saeima on March 13, 2020 watching the state of emergency debate and I had my temperature taken before I was allowed into the Saeima building. That was the last time I observed the Saeima in person because after March 13, the media and researchers were only allowed to observe sittings online due to the pandemic. I also witnessed the implementation of the e-Saeima platform on May 26th as Latvia became one of the first parliaments in the world to shift to remote sittings.

The aim of this project is to publish a book manuscript or at least three academic articles in peer reviewed journals around several substantive political issues and parliamentary dynamics related to gender and politics in Latvia.

In addition to the observations, I also conducted 38 interviews with female members of parliament from the twelfth and thirtieth Saeimas with undergraduate political science students from the University of Latvia. I interviewed 17 of 22 female MPs in the 12th Saeima and 26 of 31 female MPs in 13th Saeima, an 80% response rate (keeping in mind the female MPs who served in both Saeimas). Interviews were conducted in-person, and when the state of emergency due to the pandemic hit, I conducted interviews via phone, Skype, Facebook, Zoom, and email. Considering the constraints of the pandemic, these interviews were difficult to obtain but as things progressed, MPs were more comfortable conducting interviews online and so my research was able to continue. I was also able to get access to important sources from the Saeima archives, Central Election Commission, and the Latvian National Library, data that are not available outside of Latvia.

Regular Plenary Sitting of the Saeima, February 20, 2020. Laura Dean is in the background of the photo, performing ethnographic research. © Saeima, 2020.

The aim of this project is to publish a book manuscript or at least three academic articles in peer reviewed journals around several substantive political issues and parliamentary dynamics related to gender and politics in Latvia. The first article from this project, “Striking Out Women: Preferential Voting and Women’s Descriptive Representation in Latvia,” is forthcoming in a special Symposium on Women’s Political Representation in Central and Eastern Europe (DOI 10.1080/21599165.2020.1855423). This paper explores the significant of increase of women in Latvian politics by examining ranked choice positive and negative preference voting in the Saeima elections. The results show that small institutional changes increased the pool of candidates and significant changes to preference voting moving female candidates up political party lists, countered stagnant levels of women’s representation in Latvia, and led to larger cracks in the glass ceiling of Latvian politics. Though female candidates were less likely to have their names struck out on party lists, women had fewer pluses than their male counterparts. This finding suggests that women do not draw negative preferences from Latvian voters but are not rewarded either with positive preferences, revealing gender bias against female candidates. I presented a version of this article at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Conference in November 2020 on a panel with other Baltic scholars, entitled ‘New Directions in Gender Research in the Baltic States.”

Women do not draw negative preferences from Latvian voters but are not rewarded either with positive preferences, revealing gender bias against female candidates.

The Saeima is a gendered space where the formal and informal rules of politics prevail. Gender dynamics were apparent through my observations of parliamentary debates and interactions between MPs. Though the speaker of the Latvian Saeima Inara Mūrniece and nearly all of the presidium members are women, the halls of political power in Latvia and much of the debates were dominated by men. These debates inspired several ideas for research, including an article I am currently working on, entitled “Women Interrupted: Episodic Interjections in the Latvian Saeima.” This article examines the parliamentary stenogram with speeches by members of parliament on the floor of the Saeima for episodic interjections (starpsaucieni) to see if women speak less often but are interrupted more than their male counterparts. Latvia is one of the few countries with a female speaker of parliament and so the effect of gender could be muted or exacerbated. Speeches in the Saeima are an important and visible type of legislative behavior where women participate less frequently, thus a content analysis of the parliamentary debate has the opportunity to shed light on this legislative activity. Interruptions are viewed as a form of violence against women and can be used strategically to silence and limit the work and voices of female members of parliament.

This grant contributed to my future plans by providing funding for fieldwork that was integral to completing this research project and lead to my promotion and tenure. This field research was successful despite significant impediments with interviews and participant observation due to the pandemic. I believe that this research experience will be formidable in the next few years as I look to produce scholarship based on my interviews and participant observation. Finally, for a scholar working at a small liberal arts institution with a majority teaching focus, being recognized for my research as an emerging scholar by AABS is a significant honor. I am thankful to AABS for funding my fieldwork research in Latvia and supporting my academic career.

Laura Dean

Recipient of 2019–2020 AABS Emerging Scholars Grant

Apply now: AABS grants and fellowships

The AABS is now accepting proposals for Birnitis, Grundmanis, Saltups, Emerging Scholars, and Dissertation grants and fellowships for academic year 2021-2022.

Awards: $4,000–$21,000

Deadline: February 1, 2021