Networks of Power - Gender Analysis in European Parliaments

Jure Skubic, Alexandra Bruncrona, Jan Angermeier, Bojan Evkoski, Larissa Leiminger
Submitted by Karina Berger on 15 February 2023

The Project

Parliamentary debates are at the heart of political decision-making; they represent political power. Identifying social patterns and power relations within parliament is crucial, as they have an effect on these debates and, ultimately, on national legislation. This project examines different aspects of power in parliamentary discourse in three European countries, with a particular focus on gender distribution in the debates.

The project began at the Helsinki Digital Humanities Hackathon 2022 (DHH22), which took place in May 2022. During the hackathon, a multi-disciplinary team of 10 young researchers investigated the power distribution inside parliamentary networks over one term in three national parliaments: Slovenia (2014-2018), Spain (2016-2019) and the United Kingdom (2017-2019), using the ParlaMint dataset (Erjavec at al., 2022) as their main data source. After the hackathon ended, five of the team members continued to work together on the topic, and recently published their findings in the paper ‘Networks of Power: Gender Analysis in Selected European Parliaments’.
 
 
Speeches on energy were dominated by men in the Slovenian parliament. 

Interdisciplinary Team

Both the team at the hackathon and the smaller team were diverse and interdisciplinary, including a historian (Larissa Leiminger), a sociologist (Jure Skubic)  and several computer scientists (Alexandra Bruncrona, Jan Angermeier, Bojan Evkoski). It proved a fruitful combination of disciplines: problematic patterns, such as women MPs playing a less active role than men MPs, could be identified by successfully combining computational methods and social sciences in this multidisciplinary work.
 
Jure Skubic, Research Assistant at the Institute of Contemporary History, Ljubljana and PhD student at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, says: ‘Most of us were not used to working with researchers from different fields. We saw that when we combine different approaches, we can come up with something that just social science researchers or just computer scientists would not be able to do. It was a great experience.’ He acknowledges that while it is simple enough to run basic searches, more complex projects such as this one require the knowledge of a computer scientist who knows what data to extract and how to extract it.

’This project shows that multidisciplinary research can disclose meaningful results and expose designs that serve as harmful blocks in achieving equality.’
Jure Skubic

The Objective

The project’s primary objective was to gain insight into the power distribution of parliamentarians in different national parliaments in Europe, using statistical and social network analysis on transcribed parliamentary debates. Power and relevance were considered to be proportionally related - the more power an MP holds, the higher their relevance inside parliament and vice versa. The team measured argumentative power through the relative amount of speeches per member, which were defined as Active Relevance (AR), and the relative amount of mentions by others, which were defined as Passive Relevance (PR). While high AR shows high active participation in the debates, high PR suggests high importance for the discussions in the parliament.

In addition, the team analysed structural power through the gender distribution of argumentative power within selected topics that are typically seen as ‘hard’, such as energy and finance, or ‘soft’, such as healthcare and education.

 
Speeches about healthcare were dominated by women MPs in the UK. 
 

Methodology

The researchers selected three parliaments to analyse: Slovenia’s Državni zbor, Spain’s Congreso de los Diputados, and the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, all of which correspond to the lower house. The analyses were based mainly on the ParlaMint dataset, which contains session transcriptions from more than 17 European national parliaments, across multiple parliamentary terms. The corpora are uniformly encoded, contain rich metadata of 11 000 speakers, and are linguistically annotated using the Universal Dependencies standard and with named entities. 

In order to measure MPs’ argumentative power in the three parliaments, and observe how this power scheme relates to gender, the team made use of ParlaMint’s metadata to divide the speakers into men and women. MPs’ active participation in debates (AR) was calculated using the subset ‘unique speeches’ in the ParlaMint dataset, that is, the number of speeches given by individual MPs. In order to calculate MPs Passive Relevance, the speeches in the ParlaMint dataset were annotated with named entity (NE) tags using language-specific machine learning models. Using the NE tags, the team then detected speech parts in which one MP mentions another MP. The relative number of times an MP was mentioned in someone else’s speech was taken as the Passive Relevance score. 

The structural power within parliament was examined by applying speech selection to five topics: energy, finances, healthcare, education, and immigration. The topic modelling was carried out with a manual procedure using keywords. Keyword sets were identified for each topic using a careful qualitative and iterative process with the help of the NoSketch Engine system, which allows manual browsing through large datasets.

Outcome

Overall, the findings suggest that men hold more argumentative power than women in all studied parliaments, both in terms of Active Relevance and Passive Relevance. The lists of top 20 MPs in terms of the number of speeches given (AR) are dominated by men in all three parliaments. In the UK, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom were the exception to this, with the highest AR individually. However, taken overall, women MPs represent the minority in terms of Active Relevance in the three parliaments studied. A similar pattern was revealed for Passive Relevance, where the lists of top 20 MPs in terms of the number of times they were mentioned were also predominantly men.

‘A significant result was that the presence of women MPs alone does not warrant their participation in debates. Overall, women MPs were found to hold fewer speeches, and are also less often mentioned than men.'
Jure Skubic

The distributions with the most women MPs were the list of top 20 mentions for the UK (7), and the top 20 speeches for Spain (5). The lowest number of women MPs (1) could be found in the distribution of mentions for Slovenia. Generally, the distribution of mentions was to a great extent determined by the government position held by MPs.

There was less evidence for the same impact on gender distributions of specific topics in all three countries. The results imply that the dichotomy between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ topics may not be universally valid, but varies from parliament to parliament. Healthcare, for instance, one of the topics predefined by the researchers in the team as ‘soft’ (i.e. associated with women), presented distinctly women-dominated AR in all parliaments. For the assumed ‘hard’ topics (i.e. associated with men) energy and finance, the measured AR and PR revealed a conclusive majority of men in both Slovenia and Spain, but not in the UK. Immigration was initially deemed a ‘soft’ topic, but ultimately established as ambiguous.

 
The network shows that men have higher AR and PR in debates surrounding immigration in Spanish parliament
 

The most important finding relates to women MPs’ equality within political debate. The overall finding was that a parliamentary member’s gender could affect their argumentative power. That is, even if women hold the same position, women MPs have fewer opportunities to make their voices heard. Skubic concludes: ‘A significant result was that the presence of women MPs alone does not warrant their participation in debates. Overall, women MPs were found to hold fewer speeches, and are also less often mentioned than men. This was particularly evident in Spain: despite the fact that the percentage of women MPs was relatively high, their power in Spanish parliament was found to be rather low. This is true for both Active and Passive Relevance, which showed us that while women MPs are listened to, they are not heard. They are allowed to speak, but it looks as if it's to no avail.’ 

During the project, it became clear to the team that understanding the historical and political context of the country in question is essential to analysing power distributions in its parliament. Skubic explains: ‘Named entities were really useful for us, as we could connect the named entity with the person speaking. We think that we didn’t get good enough results for the House of Commons, because we know that Theresa May was listened to quite a lot, and that she spoke quite a lot. But she did not come up in our named entities list because she was not referenced as Theresa May, but as prime minister, which was something we did not consider. This could have been avoided with more background knowledge.’ He adds that, given the right opportunity, and with the benefit of such insights, the team is keen to continue their work on the project. 

Future Directions 

Skubic notes: ‘The ParlaMint data has so much potential. It's rare that you get so much data gathered in one place. If we hadn’t had the data set, and without the computer scientists, it would have been impossible to do research to such an extent.’ Most recently, additional details have been added to the dataset, such as the political orientation of the party and metadata about ministers (i.e. time span of role etc).  

 

 
 
’Using ParlaMint changes the scale and the speed of your research. It opens up so many different possibilities. And it also makes interdisciplinary work with people in other countries really feasible, because you're working on a digital dataset.’
Jure Skubic
 

Skubic was only introduced to CLARIN relatively recently, but has since become involved in the ParlaMint project, which encourages researchers in the social sciences to start using corpora in their research. He says: ‘We show them how to use corpora, provide tutorials, so that they can actually use the data that's already there. Based on my own experience (and also as the two literature reviews for sociology and history, written by Skubic and Fišer, 2022, show), sociologists, historians and also political scientists are often not used to using corpora at all. SSH scholars tend to do everything manually, but this past year I have really seen the potential of working with corpora.’

 

Contributors

Jure Skubic, Research Assistant, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana and Institute of Contemporary History, Ljubljana

Alexandra Bruncrona, MA Student, University of Helsinki, Finland

Jan Angermeier, Master's student in the Digital Humanities program at Stuttgart University, Germany

Bojan Evkoski, Researcher, Jozef Stefan Institute, Jozef Stefan Postgraduate School Ljubljana, Slovenia

Larissa Leiminger, graduate student, Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies, University of Tartu