November 19, 2018

Equal Representation Equals Better Results For All

By Christie Minervini | April 22, 2017

Though it's been nearly 100 years since the 19th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote, women are still greatly underrepresented in public office. Now more than ever we need equal representation – not just to more accurately reflect the electorate, but also to encourage better performance in our leadership.

Currently women make up only 28 percent of the Michigan House of Representatives, and on the local level, they represent just 11 of 39 county commission seats. Antrim County is most fairly represented, with four of nine seats held by women, but Benzie County erases those gains with zero.

So while the number of women in leadership remains limited, research shows they might actually be more effective politicians than their male counterparts.

In a Pew Research Center survey of eight important leadership traits, women outperform men in five categories and tie in two. Americans rank women higher on honesty, intelligence, compassion, creativity, and outgoingness – by as much as 75 percent. And on qualities of hard work and ambition, men and women tie, according to the survey. The only quality in which men score higher than women is decisiveness, and here they are separated by only 11 percentage points.

Yet when asked if men or women make better leaders, the results contradict these other findings – only six percent of the 2,250 surveyed adults say women make better political leaders than men.

The inconsistency uncovered in these findings is reflective of a wider paradox on the subject of gender and leadership. In an era when women have made huge advancements in higher education and workforce participation, relatively few have made it to the highest levels of political leadership.

Why not? Survey respondents cite gender discrimination, resistance to change, and a self-serving “old boys club” as reasons for the relative scarcity of women at the top. They also say that women’s family responsibilities and lack of experience hold them back from the upper ranks.

What they do not say is that women inherently lack what it takes to be leaders.

Jennifer Lawless, a Brookings Institute senior fellow who also directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University, argues that the real reason for low political participation among women is not because of lack of experience or family responsibilities, but rather that they are less likely to be encouraged to run and less likely to be considered as potential candidates when a position becomes available.

“Political gatekeepers tend to recruit from their own networks, and those are men who tend to operate in pretty male-dominated networks,” says Lawless.

It is also a matter of negative self-perception and self-doubt among women. They think they have to be twice as good to get half as far.

“Women are very likely to believe that when they run for office, they don’t do as well as men, (but) there’s no empirical evidence to support that,” says Lawless. “When women run, they actually perform just as well on Election Day, they’re able to raise just as much money, and generally speaking, their media coverage looks very much the same.”

Researchers Sarah Anzia at Stanford University and Christopher Berry at the University of Chicago confirm this notion: “If women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office relative to men, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates."

Their study also finds that "women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts."

We know that districts served by women legislators are at a distinct advantage over those represented by men. U.S. congresswomen bring home roughly nine percent more discretionary spending than congressmen and, as a result, districts that elect women to the House of Representatives receive, on average, about $49 million more each year. In addition, women are better policy makers – congresswomen sponsor more bills and obtain more co-sponsorships for legislation than their male colleagues.

So in order to achieve more equal representation in government, women need to be persuaded to run and actually believe they can win.

There's evidence of this among women at all political levels. Female members of congress told National Public Radio that they needed an extra nudge (or three) before they finally decided to run for office. In a subsequent interview, women state lawmakers claimed that they had to be talked into running.

Another important element is that women in office effectively help attract more women to office. President Obama's Analytics Director Amelia Showalter found that electing a woman to a major office like governor or U.S. senator today is associated with a two to three percent increase in representation in state legislatures four years down the road.

It's possible that if more women campaigned, other women would react less negatively to campaigning, or they might be more likely to consider themselves qualified. One thing is for sure – once they're in office, there's little standing in their way.

Christie Minervini owns Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, and is passionate about gender equality, community development, and ending homelessness.

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