Women in Spanish Municipal Councils and Budgetary Policies

By Roberto Cabaleiro (University of Vigo) and Enrique Buch (University of Vigo)

The public sphere is a sector in which women have been scarce in elected political positions until very recent times. There are global and country-specific factors explaining the difficulties women face in trying to attain political office: cultural norms, gender roles, party practices, lack of financial support, and a traditionally masculine work environment. Analyzing 174 countries, the average proportion of women in parliaments nearly doubled between 1995 and 2015. In many cases, gender quota systems were applied to increase the participation of women in political chambers.

The underrepresentation of women has consequences in how policy is made and what policy is produced. Considering how gender shapes policy interests and priorities, women’s voices are needed to articulate which policies should be funded. Different budgetary policy outcomes of governments by reason of the gender of the rulers that have been explained in terms of diverse theoretical approaches could be due to differences between women and men in policy preferences.

A recent study in Spain analyzed the influence of mayor’s gender on some aspects of public policy decisions and found that municipalities with female mayors had lower annual interest and debt repayment obligations and greater spending on security, protection, and social promotion policies than municipalities with male mayors. Another study analyzed the relationship between mayor’s gender and budgetary cuts in situations of fiscal crisis and found that, although gender of the mayor did not seem to have affected the level of total current expenditures of Spanish municipalities, it influenced cuts in social and non-social spending and the level of tax revenues.

Although the gender of the individual occupying the position of mayor is highly relevant, the gender composition of municipal councils should also be considered when the aim is to analyze the possible effects of gender on public policy outcomes. However, an analysis of the effects of the gender of the mayor and councilors on public outcomes has been infrequent. In addition, different public policies could also have effects not only in the year in which they are applied but over time. Yet research on the differential effects of the gender of municipal politicians on public outcomes in both the short and the long run is rare.

On this basis, our study contributes to the literature by evaluating the short- and long-term effects on budgetary policy of the gender of municipal councilors as well as the gender of the mayor.  For this purpose, we use a sample that comprises Spanish municipalities with a population of over 30,000 inhabitants that covers three electoral cycles.

The political and administrative structure of Spanish municipalities is similar to the mayor–council structure in the USA, with the mayor having strong powers and the direct exercise of budgetary and administrative authority. Municipalities approve their budgets annually, and the budgets express the council’s political will on the revenues and expenses related to the scope of the municipal powers. Spanish municipalities have a broad scope, covering matters such as housing and urbanism, urban environment (public parks and gardens, waste collection), street cleaning, water supply and wastewater collection, street maintenance, social exclusion and care for dependents, security and mobility of citizens, fire protection, public transport, promotion of touristic activities, local markets, cemeteries, sports activities, culture, educational cooperation, and the promotion of equality between men and women. This wide scope of services that municipalities can provide, together with their legally recognized autonomy to manage their own interests, means that a municipal government can budget for the desired level of both tax resources and diverse public spending policies according to its political preferences.

We analyze whether the gender of municipal councilors and the gender of the mayor affect total current expenditures, current non-social and social spending, current administrative spending, and revenues from taxes in light of the specific preferences of women. We verified that the gender of the political leaders on municipal councils affects budgetary outcomes. 

Among the different findings of our research, we must highlight that the greater preference of women for social expenses, mostly supported by the scientific literature, has been verified in a limited way. We have only been able to verify this effect on the social budget for a female mayor or for female councilors ideologically aligned with a female mayor at the precise moment that the gender balance changes in the municipal council, but we have not verified whether this effect persists over time. At this same moment, a change in gender balance is also associated with a lower level of tax collection. This reduction in tax collection does not match the empirical mainstream in the literature, which indicates that women prefer higher taxes. In the context of the deep economic crisis that lasted for many years during our study period, this behavior of female leaders when they accede to political office could be explained by the materialization of the higher distributive preference of women, not only in concrete spending policies but also in tax policies. The social awareness of women regarding environments of greater poverty could have been the reason that many Spanish municipalities with female leaders applied tax reductions in those social segments most affected by the crisis.

Consistent with recent findings that there is a different gender gap for different ideologies, our research finds evidence that female representatives with a right-wing ideology lead to municipalities having lower levels of total current spending in both the short and the long term, with a decrease in spending on non-social services especially relevant. In the long term, the effects of female councilors are less clear than are those of a female mayor. Our findings highlight the fact that a right-wing ideology moderates the upward effect that female councilors have on non-social expenditures. The justification could lie in the special nature of some specific expenses that the Spanish municipalities manage.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Roberto Cabaleiro, PhD in Economic and Business Science at University of Vigo (Spain). He is associate professor at the University of Vigo. His teaching and research interests include public accounting, local finance, public accountability, and gender, with diverse publications in international scientific reviews in the last years. His research was published in American Review of Public Administration, Transylvanian Review of Administrative Sciences, and Local Government Studies. 

Enrique Buch, PhD in Economics and Business Science at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He is associate professor at the University of Vigo (Spain). His research interests include public accounting, local finance and accounting harmonization, and women politicians, with diverse publications in international scientific reviews. His publications appeared in International Public Management Journal, Local Government Studies, and Lex-Localis Journal of Local Self-Government.

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