Are women better politicians?

barbara boxer
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer stands with a group of fellow Washington women.
Joe Readle/Getty Images

The measure of an effective politician certainly doesn't reside in the bedroom, but when it comes to gender differences between legislators, history has shown a distinct divide between their conjugal conduct. Namely, male politicos have become embroiled in sex scandals far more often than their female counterparts. Out of 53 such incidents documented between 1976 and 2009, Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth was the only woman make the list. In 2011 alone, a duo of New York Representatives, Christopher Lee and Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after publishing less-than-professional photos of themselves online, and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered a public mea culpa for fathering a child with a former housekeeper [source: CNN].

At a 2010 panel discussion featuring a group of female U.S. senators, the issue of Washington, D.C., sex scandals was raised, and the women seemed befuddled as to how they could find the time to pencil in an affair. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand brought up having to balance career and motherhood, and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison responded, "With all the multitasking [women] do, who could plan that whole scheme?" [source: Ryan].


Sen. Hutchison had a point, at least according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Political Science. A pair of researchers compared the performance of male and female members of Congress by tallying up the amount of federal funding the politicians directed to their home districts between 1984 and 2004. Controlling for party affiliation, geography and other influential variables, women handily beat out the men, delivering an average $49 million more per year to their respective districts [source: Anzia and Berry]. And speaking of multitasking, a separate study conducted at Ohio State University found that between 1981 and 2009, congresswomen also sponsored and cosponsored more bills, and the legislation they championed was more successful at being signed into law, attracted more media buzz and went beyond gendered issues typically associated with women in politics, such as reproductive rights and education [source: Dokoupil].

Clearly, women have the right stuff to excel in politics, but their minority status may indicate otherwise.


Where are the women in Washington?

president george bush
In the United States, women make up only 16.8 percent of Congress.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It probably goes without saying that American politics retains a boys' club connotation, if only because they warm an overwhelming majority of the seats in the U.S. Capitol. As of July 2012, women held only 90 slots in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, or just 16.8 percent of the total [source: Center for American Women and Politics]. The gender gap is slightly narrower on a state level, with women comprising 23.7 percent of the state congressional positions [source: Center for American Women and Politics]. But voters may be less to blame for that disparity than a marked difference in how men and women approach political prospects.

A 2004 study out of Brown University explored why more women don't run for office. In short, potential female candidates are less interested in seeking public office due to personal reasons like the demands of motherhood. Despite impressive résumés, they're also less likely to consider themselves qualified for the job, compared to men [source: Lawless and Fox]. Meanwhile, political parties more readily tap promising men to jump into the fray as opposed to women -- a pattern which in turn may reinforce the perception of politics as a distinctly masculine pursuit [source: Lawless and Fox].


Politics aside, when it comes to evaluating leadership qualities in general, surveys indicate that women actually maintain an advantage over men. In March 2012, the Harvard Business Review published data showing that female leaders in the workplace are considered more competent and likeable. Respondents from multiple management levels rated women higher on 12 out of 16 leadership traits, including taking initiative and driving for results [source: Zenger and Folkman]. The telling skill where men at last beat out the women? Developing a decisive plan, a gendered assumption also reflected in a 2008 Pew Research Center poll that similarly analyzed how the public judges male and female leaders. In a case of statistical déjà vu, while women outshined the men overall -- except on ratings of decisiveness and who would make a better political leader -- only 6 percent of participants voted for the women, while 21 percent voted for the guys [source: Taylor et al].

Does this evidence suggest that in order to achieve -- or at least approach -- gender parity in politics, women should simply start "manning up"?


The Pantsuit Problem

hillary clinton
Hillary Clinton has been blamed at times for being too masculine, as well as too feminine.
Brian Ach/Getty Images

One of most debilitating stereotypes that women running for office must overcome is that men are better at critical decision-making. The electorate values seemingly feminine traits of honesty and compassion, but when it comes time to defend the nation, levy taxes or sign controversial legislation into law, it's the masculine-aligned decisiveness that's required. For that reason, political commentators have often claimed that female politicians must walk a tightrope of abandoning behaviors linked to their XX chromosomes but not becoming overtly masculine, either; they should be firm, but not aggressive; pleasant, but not emotional [source: Washington Post]. Just ask Hillary Clinton, a prime example of a prominent female politician who has been scrutinized for everything from her pantsuits appearing too harsh to her crying at a 2008 New Hampshire campaign event appearing too weak [source: Breslau].

As more women become engaged in modern politics, the more apparent gendered expectations like these have become. For instance, a 2010 study from Yale University concluded that people view a female politician advancing through the ranks as an unsavory form of power-seeking, whereas a man in the same position doesn't receive any backlash [source: Okimoto and Brescoll]. In another Yale study published in 2008, the researchers found that based on facial appearance alone, potential voters identify male faces as being more competent and dominant, whereas female candidates were labeled as attractive and approachable [source: Chiao and Bowman]. However, other studies have also unturned evidence that there's more than some sort of inherent sex-bias going on at the polls.


While gendered expectations exist in voters' minds, they actually don't make a significant dent on Election Day. Statistically, in fact, female candidates are just as likely to win as male candidates [source: Lawless and Fox]. But reaching that victory podium may also demand above-average fortitude and determination to shirk off political obstacles, carve out the additional time to manage a campaign and hit the streets for donors who may not be as familiar with a female candidate's name and platforms. And that, Stanford researchers have proposed, is the very reason why the women in Washington tend to outperform the men on paper; it takes an especially high caliber of woman to charge into the minority and stake her claim [source: Anzia and Berry]. They also project that as politics becomes more gender equal that performance gap also will narrow since the field will attract a wider range of contenders.

In the meantime, the important lesson for women in politics isn't that voters judge them differently from men on the ballot but that their participation can have a positive ripple effect. In a 2006 case study conducted among Indian villages that had enforced quotas for women in leadership positions, the researchers noticed that the longer the villagers witnessed women in power, the fewer gendered biases they expressed [source: Beaman]. Politicians are often called up to lead by example, and for women, that duty is especially pertinent for the future of their roles in governing around the world.


Author's Note

I tend to approach comparisons of male versus female skill sets with caution. Sure, gender differences are endlessly fascinating and insightful but declaring one group better than the other at something should often be delivered with a giant grain of salt. For that reason, I was initially skeptical of the widely publicized study touting women as the more effective politicians -- until I got to the salt. Women outperforming men in the Capitol makes complete sense once you consider the challenges they're up against to get there, including defying gendered expectations and carving out time from work and family to make it happen. Although the gender gap in government is narrowing at a snail's pace, if it ever closes, it'll be interesting to see whether women retain their title as going above and beyond their male counterparts to get the political job done.

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