Women Make Better Politicians: The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect

By Don Pelton

This fascinating article arrived in my email today in the newsletter from bigthink.com. It describes a study done by Sarah Anzia at Stanford University and Christopher Berry at the University of Chicago. They find that “congresswomen secure roughly 9 percent more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. This amounts to a premium of about $49 million per year for districts that send a woman to Capitol Hill.”

The reason for this disparity in male and female political performance, according to Anzia and Berry, is directly related to the discrimination they must overcome in order to get elected at all. Women must perform better in order to overcome persistent bias, just as — they argue — Jackie Robinson had to perform better than his white counterparts in order to overcome racial bias.

Here’s how John Cookson of bigthink describes the phenomenon:

This difference in performance between female and male legislators may be a result, in part, of the plain fact that it is more difficult for women to get elected. Titled the “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect,” the report finds higher performance amid persistent bias has a systematic effect on who reaches the highest level—and on what they do while they’re there. Jackie Robinson was one of the greatest baseball players of his day not because he was African-American, but rather because the discriminatory bias against African-Americans in baseball meant higher-level talent was needed to break those bias barriers.

“If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process,” Anzia and Berry write. On top of that, “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.” It doesn’t matter whether the sex-based selection is from actual or perceived, active or passive, origins, the report finds that “women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterpart.”

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, attributes this difference to the fact that women are more collaborative. She tells Big Think that “women are actually more inclined towards that more modern leadership, which is collaborative problem-solving, enabling, consultative, not just trying to assert a kind of hierarchical power.” Men may also employ this sort of leadership, but it is distinctly feminine, she says.

Mary Robinson’s point is crucial. It’s not enough merely to vote women into office.

The most talented and effective politicians of either sex, apparently, are those who exemplify qualities that have traditionally been considered “feminine:” collaborative sensibilities in problem solving.

It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for men to exhibit these qualities, qualities which — if not inherited genetically — are usually developed through serious introspection and engagement with the limitations of traditional sex roles, the sort of work often best done within the circle of a men’s group.

I see no evidence for such qualities in our own 4th congressional district representative, Tom McClintock, who actually works against bringing money into our region.

Clearly, it is not enough to vote for a woman if that woman does not exemplify these traditional feminine qualities, but rather is chiefly driven by the less effective masculine quality of non-collaborative aggressiveness.

In my experience, effectiveness — in both men and women — flows from a balance between what have traditionally been considered masculine qualities and what have traditionally been considered feminine qualities. Because our culture does not nurture such balance, it is hard to achieve.

I would argue that the women noted for their political effectiveness have most likely struck this difficult balance.

I leave it to you whether candidates such as Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell exemplify the qualities of effective political leadership that this new study describes.

Are they Jill Robinsons, who have achieved their prominence by overcoming persistent bias and being better — because they have to — at a game traditionally dominated by men?

Ironically, the study seems to show that traditional feminine qualities are more effective in playing what has traditionally been a male-dominated game.

I’d say that means the game itself is changing, as it should.

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