The Wilson Quarterly

Women may be underrepresented in Congress, but those who get elected to office are no shrinking violets. Research by political scientists Sarah F. Anzia of Stanford University and Christopher R. Berry of the University of Chicago shows that congresswomen are more effective on Capitol Hill than their male counterparts. Female legislators secure nine percent more federal discretionary spending for their districts than congressmen do—on average, a difference of $49 million per district annually. They also sponsor about three more bills per Congress than their male peers (the average per member is 18), and cosponsor roughly 26 more bills.

Would Congress be more effective if more women were elected? (They’ve held an average of just 17 percent of the seats in recent years.) It’s not likely, Anzia and Berry say. Congresswomen aren’t overachievers because women are intrinsically better legislators, the authors argue, but because the barriers to entry for women in congressional politics are so high that those who succeed simply have more talent and put in more effort than the average man who wins at the polls. If those barriers were to fall, so would the performance level of most female legislators.

The authors attribute women’s superior performance in Congress to what they call the “Jill Robinson effect.” Like the famed African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson, whose combination of great athletic talent and outstanding character persuaded the major leagues to desegregate, congresswomen have to prove their mettle and then some before they can win entry to the fortress that is Capitol Hill. The persistence of discrimination against female politicians, even in the wake of the 2008 presidential campaign, in which Hillary Clinton finished a close second for the Democratic nomination, is indicated by a recent survey that found 23 percent of American adults believed men to be more emotionally suited for politics than women. In another survey, 11 percent said that they wouldn’t vote for a woman for president even if she were qualified for the job.

Women are conscious of the bias, and it discourages all but the most competitive would-be female congressional candidates from entering the electoral fray, Anzia and Berry argue. One study found that 90 percent of women with a suitable profile for political office reported believing that there would be prejudice against them in political contests because of their gender.

Female candidates running in conservative districts have to be especially tenacious. Yet there is a considerable payoff that comes with electing a woman in these locales, Anzia and Berry find. Conservative congresswomen bring home even more federal dollars than their female colleagues from liberal districts.

THE SOURCE: “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?” by Sarah F. Anzia and Christopher R. Berry, in American Journal of Political Science, July 2011.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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