Mary Layton Atkinson, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Country: United States (North Carolina)

Research Interests

Political Communication

Public Opinion

Public Policy

Gender and Politics

Legislative Politics

Agenda Setting

Issue Framing

Gender Stereotypes

U.S. Congress

Countries of Interest

United States

My Research:

My research focuses on agenda setting and the policymaking process, with an emphasis on the roles public opinion, issue framing, media coverage, and gender stereotypes play in shaping policy debate.


Journal Articles:

(2018) Gender Stereotypes and the Policy Priorities of Women in Congress, Political Behavior

This piece examines the relationship between the policy portfolios female legislators develop while in office and the gender stereotypes they face when running for reelection. Scholars find that women who run for Congress are just as likely to win as men are, yet women face considerable obstacles related to their gender on the campaign trail. Women are more likely to face challengers than men are, the challengers they face are typically more qualified, and gender stereotypes paint women as less able to handle important issues like defense and foreign affairs. We argue that women are successful in the face of these obstacles, in part, because they craft large, diverse legislative portfolios that include bills on a mix of topics. These topics include district interests, women's interests, and the masculine issues on which women are disadvantaged. This balancing strategy allows women to develop reputations for competence on a wide range of issues, which in turn, helps them deter electoral challengers. We test our hypotheses by analyzing a comprehensive database of all bills introduced in the U.S. House between 1963 and 2009. We find that female MCs propose more bills, spread across more issues, than do men. We also find that women must introduce twice as many bills as similarly situated men to successfully deter primary challengers. Our findings speak to the gendered context of Congressional campaigns and provide evidence that female representatives must do more in office than their male colleagues to achieve similar electoral outcomes.

(2017) Gender and Policy Agendas in the Post-War House, Policy Studies Journal

For decades, critical mass theory shaped expectations about the ways female politicians would behave in office. Newer studies, however, have challenged the theory's premise that “token” women will avoid championing women's interests while women serving in more gender‐diverse bodies will work together to advance them. In fact, many in the discipline now believe it is time to leave the idea of critical mass behind. These new studies have significantly advanced our knowledge of the link between women's descriptive and substantive representation. But the move away from critical mass leaves unresolved the question of how female legislators will adapt their policy priorities based on changes in the size of the female delegation. I seek to answer this question and hypothesize that the more women who serve in Congress, the less attention each female member of Congress will give to women's issues, and the more diverse the female agenda will become. This diversification should not, however, result in lower overall levels of attention to women's issues. Because responsibility for substantive representation is shared, with each woman continuing to contribute as the delegation grows, the women's agenda can diversify while attention to women's issues actually increases. An analysis of bill sponsorship data spanning 60 years provides support for my theory. I show that when the size of the female delegation grows, women increase both the breadth and depth of their collective legislative agenda—simultaneously offering increased substantive representation and representation across a wider range of topics.

(2014) Measuring the Media Agenda, Political Communication

Measuring media attention to politically relevant topics is of interest to a broad array of political science and communications scholars. We provide a practical guide for the construction, validation, and evaluation of time series measures of media attention. We review the extant literature on the coherence of the media agenda, which provides evidence in support of and evidence against the emergence of a single, national news agenda. Drawing expectations from this literature, we show the conditions under which a single national news agenda is likely to be present and where it is likely to be absent. We create 90 different keyword searches covering a wide range of topics and gather counts of stories per month from 12 national and regional media sources with data going back to 1980 where possible. We show using factor analysis wide variance in the strength of the first factor. We then estimate a regression model to predict this value. The results show the conditions under which any national source will produce time series results consistent with any other. Key independent variables are the average number of stories, the variance in stories per month, and the presence of any “spike” in the data series. Our large-scale empirical assessment should provide guidance to scholars assessing the quality of time series data on media coverage of issues.

Books Written:

(2017) Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking, University of Chicago Press

Combative Politics offers a unifying theory that explains why members of the public frequently reject policies that seem to give them exactly what they want. From the Affordable Care Act, to The No Child Left Behind Act, to the Federal Marriage Amendment, to the Health Security Act---examples abound of Americans expressing support for the goals and key provisions of policies while simultaneously opposing the policy vehicles as a whole. Using a multi-method approach that includes content analysis, individual level experiments, observational analyses, and case studies of specific policies, I demonstrate that Americans are rejecting the divisive, partisan process of policy making rather than the substance of the legislation.

Media Appearances:

Radio Appearances:

(2017) NPR

Quoted in "President Trump heads to the Hill today to hammer home his agenda" by Kimberly Adams.

Newspaper Quotes:

(2019) The New York Times

Quoted in "How the politically unthinkable can become mainstream" by Maggie Astor.

(2016) The Washington Post

Quoted in, "There are 107 million single Americans. Why do politicians rarely mention us?" by Vicki Larson