Elect more women to end gridlock

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As Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University puts it: “Women are more likely to work across the aisle and find compromise.”

And with Congress confronting a looming year-end crisis over the federal budget, expiring tax breaks and the so-called “fiscal cliff,” a vote for a woman candidate could also be a vote to end the logjam in Washington.

According to one analysis by National Journal of partisanship in members’ voting records, more than a third of the senators the magazine called “centrist” in 2010 were women, even as women senators made up less than one-fifth of the Senate. In fact, nine of the 17 women in the Senate in 2010 were rated “centrist,” including Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), Susan Collins (R-Me.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

Moreover, women senators tended to be more bipartisan than their male counterparts from the same state, even when they were the same party.

In Minnesota, for example, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar took more bipartisan votes than her fellow Democrat, Sen. Al Franken. Likewise, in Texas, retiring Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson was rated closer to the center than her colleague, Republican Sen. John Cornyn (who in fact tied for first as the Senate’s most conservative senator in 2010).

Many studies have found personality differences between men and women.

In particular, women tend to score higher on “agreeableness” (whether someone prefers to be cooperative versus antagonistic) than men do on the currently favored tool of personality researchers—the “Big Five” model developed by the National Institutes of Health. On average, professor and personality researcher Colin DeYoung of the University of Minnesota says, “women are more likely to be motivated toward cooperation than men.”
Researchers say this is because men tend to think of themselves as individuals unconnected from other people, while a woman’s sense of self is more likely to include her family and community.  In addition, women tend to score higher on traits related to agreeableness, such as compassion, warmth, empathy and politeness, which one study defined as “the tendency to show respect to others and refrain from taking advantage of them.”

Female candidates such as Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief who is running for Congress in Florida’s 8th District, put it more bluntly. “Women … are not threatened by working with others to get things done,” she said by email.

Two factors hinder women from becoming Washington’s secret weapon against gridlock this fall.

First, despite the record numbers of women candidates filing to run, gains by women in Congress will likely fall far short of 1992—the so-called “Year of the Woman” when women gained 20 seats in Congress. The percentage of women in Congress—17 percent—is still so low that 78 countries (including places like Afghanistan) have better female representation than the United States, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Gains by women would have to be dramatic over at least the next several election cycles for women to have a large enough caucus to force a change in tone in Congress.

Second, the disagreeability of the political process might deter women from running for office in the first place. According to a January 2012 study by scholars Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, women are much more likely than men to be turned off by such aspects of modern campaigning as the constant quest for donations, the loss of privacy and time away from family. As a consequence, they find, women are 16 percentage points less likely than men to have even thought about running for office.

Nevertheless, if enough women make it to Congress this November, they may indeed prove to be the better bridge builders and compromise brokers Washington desperately needs.

Kim is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.