Pearl Sullivan ’21 and Casey DiRienzo co-author paper on elected women’s influence on education policy

Their research shows that a higher representation of women in office results in more spending on primary education. That influence is greater when women hold positions of veto power or ability to set a legislative agenda.

Elon College Fellow Pearl Sullivan ’21 and Professor of Economics Casey DiRienzo recently co-authored an article about female politicians’ influence on education spending and policy.

Pearl Sullivan ’21

Using data from more than 60 countries, they examined the outcomes of countries with higher representation of women in government and the effects of having women in positions of power within government bodies. Their analysis showed that both higher representation and greater political power result in more primary education spending, and that spending rises markedly when women hold veto power or the power to set an agenda.

Their article “A Seat at the Table or a Power Seat: The Impact of Simple Representation Versus Power Representation of Women in Government on Funding for Primary Education” was published by Advances in Social Science and Culture last month. Previous studies had shown that women more often advance policy around “common good” issues, like healthcare, child welfare and education generally. Studies hadn’t yet shown an impact on education spending. Those studies also showed inconclusive results regarding the representation of women on education spending.

“We hypothesized that representation wouldn’t have a significant impact, but that power would have a significant impact on primary education funding,” Sullivan said. “Our research showed that both had significant impact, but the impact was much greater when women held power.”

Professor of Economics Casey DiRienzo

Sullivan is double majoring in International & Global Studies and Spanish with a minor in economics. She completed the research through the Elon College Fellows program, which entails a two-year undergraduate research experience closely mentored by faculty. She connected with DiRienzo as a mentor through an economics class and learned of the professor’s expertise in studying the impact of women on the economy and government.

“When I came to Elon I knew I was interested in women, politics and economics, but I wasn’t sure how it could all fit together,” Sullivan said. “Coming into the Fellows program, I knew I would be doing research and that those topics were in the mix. When I met Dr. DiRienzo, it was perfect. The stars aligned. She was so helpful in determining a research topic and how to measure women’s impact in government.”

This fall Sullivan will enroll in the London School of Economics to pursue a master’s degree in gender development and globalization. Close relationships with faculty mentors, advisers and teachers — who challenged and motivated her to accomplish more than she thought she could — gave her the confidence to pursue postgraduate education abroad. Her career ambition is to work with international agencies around policies and issues affecting women.

“It’s important for women to be represented in governments in the U.S. and around the world. I joked with friends that even if the research didn’t show that women have a significant impact on government, I would still believe that,” Sullivan said. “But seeing the mathematical certainty that women in government are significant in improving funding for education, and seeing the need for women to have power and be in roles of influence, is important. Seeing that proven was really cool.”

The Elon College Fellows program is a four-year academic and professional program exploring the breadth, depth and connections within the arts and sciences. Fellows receive annual scholarships, a travel grant to study abroad, and research funding while enmeshed in a community of friends and learners.