In October of last year, a group of Senate women brought their cooperative and consensus-building skills to the table and succeeded where men failed. At the time, there was well-deserved focus on the role of women in negotiating the bipartisan plan which resulted in bringing the 16-day long government shutdown to an end.
More recently, Senate Budget Committee chair, Patty Murray, has received great praise and attention for her no-nonsense, consensus-building style in budget negotiations with her House counterpart, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan. In their announcement of the deal reached with Ryan, Murray said of their relationship: “We cheer for a different football team, clearly. We catch different fish, but we agree that our country needs some certainty.”
She was given a job no one else wanted, yet as it turned out, she was successful because of her unique negotiating skills that run counter to the stereotypical male ego.
The expanding influence of women in politics, however, did not start in October nor did it end in December. It is a ongoing topic which deserves renewed attention and serious analysis.
The concept of gender gap in politics is primarily conveyed to describe the differences between men and women in their behavior at the polls and in their respective attitudes toward issues. Disproportionate gender representation in our political leaders signifies this as well. Yet, a different type of gender gap is also emerging, one which relates to how gender differences are involved in the actual practice of politics.
The numbers as well as the impact of women in the political arena are clearly increasing. The question of whether women, by their very nature, are better able to reach compromise and consensus in negotiating the challenges which our country faces is an equally important one. The ongoing efforts and notable successes speak loudly to support this premise, even if only on an anecdotal basis.
Another perspective to consider is whether the negative political climate which is so pervasive in American politics can be turned around as the number of women in politics continues to increase. Murray’s comments about working with Ryan exemplify her efforts to rise above the negativity. In fairness to Ryan, this was a two-way street; perhaps men also will show a more positive focus when they increasingly must deal and negotiate with their women counterparts.
There are currently 78 women in the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate – a total of 20 percent of Congress. Over the 15-year period since 1998, this has increased from 12 percent.
At the same time, women are increasing their national representation in the presidential cabinet, on the Supreme Court, as candidates for executive office, as well as on state and local levels. Hillary Clinton, if she seeks and is successful in securing the Democratic Party nomination in 2016, would be the first woman running as a major party candidate for president. It remains to be seen whether America is ready for this. Ongoing efforts lead to change, whether predicted or not.
Are women by nature more cooperative, better at compromise, and more skilled in consensus building? If so, the growing trend toward female leaders may very well result in less partisanship in Congress and other branches of government.
One plausible theory supporting this premise may be what has been called “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect.” Women in politics, like early minority athletes, need to achieve greatness to gain respect. Average performance is not enough; they must excel to be noticed, and thus may work harder than men to solve the most complex and thorny problems.
Initiatives abound providing research, support, and promotion of women in politics. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) is a leading source of research, whose mission is: “to promote greater knowledge and understanding about women’s participation in politics and government and to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life.” CAWP’s research suggests that the inclusion of women in elective office has led to change.
One of these changes is greater legislative emphasis of issues important to women: families, education, health and welfare, and women’s reproductive rights.
Differing leadership styles and views of power versus their male counterparts have also led to greater participation, with an emphasis on cooperation and teamwork. Women in particular seem to recognize that to make a contribution, they must work together to achieve common goals. Greater visibility of women in politics also serves to provide role models for young girls who aspire to become future leaders themselves.
The Bipartisan Policy Center recently hosted a Women as Leaders forum featuring former Senators Olympia Snowe and Blanche Lincoln, as well as other women in national politics. They spoke of the importance of staying positive, knowing the facts, and keeping one’s eye on the issues, as opposed to the destruction of the opposition. Snowe claimed that: “…listening is half the battle in understanding where somebody else is coming from.”
Senate women have met for monthly dinners for 20 years, with the express purpose of getting to know one another on a personal level. The formation of personal relationships has led to renewed respect for one another, despite deep political and ideological differences. Such an emphasis on relationship building is not a perspective one traditionally expects from male leaders. Yet, it is crucial in finding common ground to work through difficult issues.
Another new group, a PAC called More Women in Congress, was started this past year by activist Shannon Meade of Portland, Oregon. Her goals include giving women a stronger voice by supporting bipartisan female candidates to public office. Regarding differences in leadership styles, Meade claims: “women in leadership are much more likely to be team builders and engaged listeners,” and “Women tend to be more pragmatic in their approach and that, along with the willingness to listen, can add up to strong leadership.”
Women in politics strive not just to be equals to male leaders, but also to bring new perspectives and different views to the political forum. Reconciling the gender gap is not just a numbers game where equal representation is the goal; instead, it is an effort to optimize how male and female leaders can contribute in different ways to the political process. New highs may be reached in how our elected leaders interact and achieve results. Hopefully this trend will accelerate.
A slightly modified version of this article was originally published by IVN.us a non-profit news platform for independent journalists.