Lift the roof off of capitol hill and take a gander down on Congress. Do you know what you’d see? According to the Congressional Research Service, you’d see 102 women sitting amongst the 433 male members of the House and Senate, 20 percent in the Senate, and 18.8 percent in the House of Representatives as of February of 2014. So far there have been a total of forty-seven women of color in Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, twenty-nine African Americans, nine Asian American/Pacific Islanders, and nine Latinas.
To begin, let’s be clear: better representation of minorities and women in Congress is something to be aimed for with all seriousness. A more representative legislature is a stronger one; diversity in policymakers and gender equality demonstrated in Washington is a vital end goal. The fact that a mere 19 percent of Congress is female is hardly grounds for celebration or satisfaction. However, while there are many arguments for increasing women’s presence in politics and in Congress, some are debateably more problematic than others.
There is something to be said in this situation for the simplest reasoning in this case. Occam’s razor takes the cake. Having a more equal representation of women in Congress makes the representation for the whole of the U.S. better balanced. It is indicative of greater equality in government elections — and this is good. A more balanced gender count in Congress demonstrates equal opportunity, while a limited turnout of female Representatives and Senators is potentially symptomatic of a restrictive or biased societal or governmental pathway. Are women not running? Are parties not recruiting women as readily? Are women less likely to be voted for? A 2010 study from Loyola Marymount and American University showed that women were 29 percent less likely to label themselves as “very qualified” to run for office compared to male counterparts with comparable experience.
A few years back, academics from University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, and Colorado College released a report that’s particularly salient in light of the low percentage of women in Congress. It’s made doubly relevant by today’s political atmosphere in the legislature: gridlocked and frustrated, and America’s desire for solutions to the gridlock. Saying “women are the answer and have the ability” would be quite comforting, but is perhaps sticky. Firstly, it’s worth recognizing that women do have a historically very strong record of accomplishing policy goals despite polarization and disagreement in Congress, including during the shutdown.
The study, penned by Craig Volden, Alan Wiseman, and Dana Wittmer, claims that women in Congress have shown a unique efficiency when compared with their male counterparts — and that while career-wise it isn’t always to their benefit, it gives them a unique power when working to get things done in a minority party. The study claims that “female lawmakers differ from their male counterparts by exerting higher effort, by being more policy focused, and by engaging more fully in consensus-building activities,” drawing on “existing literature about the behavioral tendencies of female lawmakers” and examining “a data set of every bill introduced by men and women in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973-2008.”
It finds that women in a polarized majority party are sometimes overcome by the “contentious and partisan activities of male lawmakers” but that in a minority party women “work hard, focus on policy goals, and build coalitions” leading them to be “better able to keep their sponsored bills alive through later stages of the legislative process than … minority men.”
This viewpoint is one reiterated in many publications. Brookings released a piece in February entitled “More Women = Less Gridlock: How 2014 & 1016 May Reshape Politics” in which it says women “are seen as a beacon of hope” in a “world where stalemate has become the norm.”
“Women and men have inherently different leadership approaches, and there is a substantial academic literature to prove it. Decades of research shows that male legislators tend to be individualist and competitive, while women are more collaborative and consensus driven,” said Brookings, quoting Representative Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) who said: “Women have a capacity for understanding and compassion which a man structurally does not have.”
Indeed, scientific research has shown that men and women are different — a shocker to most of us, I’m sure — but I would argue that suggesting a person is better at something by nature of their gender will always be dangerous territory. Generalizations usually tend to be a poor weapon to combat the historical disadvantages of one group. An advantage often also suggests a disadvantage, even if unintentionally, and sometimes reinforces negative stereotypes. The above study itself points to the disadvantage openly, saying, basically, that in a more aggressive majority party situation women are less successful, that it’s through their ability to compromise and network that they succeed.
This is hardly helpful in a field where being seen as weak or not aggressive enough is sometimes a major disadvantage. The idea of a self fulfilling prophecy also applies here. Women tend to accomplish work through cooperation rather than competing aggressively as male counterparts do; que Sheryl Sandberg’s ban on bossy discussion here. Looking at how women have functioned in Congress since the seventies need not necessarily elevate or disadvantage their various strengths and weakness, and realistically it should not.
A sample size of the mere 298 women in total who’ve ever served in Congress is hardly huge. The fact that this examination has been done over a period with changing sociopolitical climate towards women — it’s hardly a uniform look at women’s functionality and tendencies in Congress if the environment is drastically different over the course of the study. Ultimately, the narrowing of our perspective on women lawmakers to these specific strengths is unnecessary, and possibly destructive, and in the end, we can all agree that more women in Congress would be a good thing — gridlock or not.
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