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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Could Women Rescue Compromise in Congress? 

April 3, 2014 — By Kelly Born

Recently I’ve read a number of articles highlighting how women have helped facilitate compromise and get legislation passed in this cantankerous and uncompromising 113th Congress. One in Time noted that, “with the exception of immigration reform, every major bill passed in this [2013] session [was] authored by a woman.” An article from Brookings quoted Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) as saying that “their female colleagues deserve most of the credit for driving the compromise to reopen the U.S. government.”

Women are also believed to be more willing to break with party orthodoxy (at least on “women’s issues”)—half of the four GOP women in the Senate are pro-choice, for example. Recent legislation proposed to address the problem of sexual assault in the military offers another great example of how women in Congress work together. According to the same Time article, the women senators “all agreed that they would not air their differences in public, but rather emphasize the fact that the [two proposed] bills are 95% identical,” and in fact had eleven of the twelve major reforms proposed in common.

All of this got me wondering: how much research was there, beyond these anecdotal stories, to suggest that women actually legislate differently—not just on “women’s issues,” but overall? It turns out there’s a fair amount.

The idea that women employ different leadership styles and approaches than men has been well substantiated in the private and corporate spheres. These studies range dramatically in their approaches, with some more applicable to the political sphere than others. One of the most comprehensive studies, a 1990 meta-analysis of experimental and organization research on gender and leadership style, found that women tended to lead more democratically, while men tended to be more “autocratic.” Other studies have shown similar results—women are more likely to “encourage participation [and] share power and information more readily,” according to a paper comparing women and men city managers by Richard Fox and Robert Schumann published in Public Administration Review in 1999.

Numerous other studies of women in society at large suggest that women “construe social reality differently,” and embrace ideals of “responsibility” and “interconnectedness” in contrast to a somewhat more common male adherence to “rules and individualism,” according to women's studies scholar Carol Gilligan. Another study cited by Gilligan suggested “female characteristics” include “a higher level of intuition about people” and “a higher level of compromise and conciliation.” Still other researchers (including Blair and Stanley (1991), Dodson and Carroll (1991), and Duerst-Lahti and Johnson (1990)) have found that “women do not use or perceive their positions of power like their male counterparts.”

Much of the research on women in politics focuses on what issues they care about rather than the way they lead: health and education rank highly, amongst others. But some do focus on leadership styles, and these are fascinating. For example, data from Fox and Schumann suggest that women city managers (an appointed rather than elected position) are more likely to encourage citizen involvement and incorporate citizen input. A survey of 500 city managers found that three times as many women versus men (28% vs 9%) saw “communicating with citizens” as one of their primary responsibilities.

In a legislative setting, one article found that women chairs are more likely to use their position as a facilitator or moderator of committee discussion, rather than “as a way to control witness testimony, direct committee discussion, and join in the substantive debates”. Generally, the literature has characterized the female approach to lawmaking as “more integrative, collaborative, and consensual,” according to a paper by Alana Jeydel and Andrew Taylor published in Political Research Quarterly in 2003.

Women remain under-represented in almost all elected seats in the United States. In 1992, the “year of the woman,” people thought all of this would change. But instead we seem to have plateaued. Today there are only 99 women in today’s Congress (18.5% of the 535 seats). Women hold 20 seats in the U.S. Senate, 79 in the U.S. House. We have 5 women governors. Less than a quarter of state legislators are women. All this means that the U.S. ranks 97th worldwide in women’s representation in national legislatures.

So, reflecting back on this research, I’d welcome a thought experiment: Imagine women held 50% of the seats in the Senate and the House. How might our politics be different? Insofar as you think the result could be positive, what could be done to bring this difference about?