Are women better politicians?

By: Cristen Conger

Where are the women in Washington?

In the United States, women make up only 16.8 percent of Congress.
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"?