Q&A: Assoc. Prof. Christopher Berry discusses rise of women in Congress

One of the most notable outcomes of the Nov. 6 election was the record number of women voted into Congress, including 20 women who will occupy seats in the U.S. Senate.

Christopher Berry

Christopher Berry

Christopher Berry, associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, recently discussed the effects of the increase in female U.S. senators. Berry co-authored a 2011 study that found congresswomen consistently outperform their male counterparts on several measures of job performance.

What implications will the increase of female representation have for the U.S. Senate?

Potentially of great interest to the constituents of the new female senators is our finding that they consistently bring home more federal projects and federal aid than their male counterparts. When you think about disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the ability to bring home federal aid for rebuilding efforts is really important. It is going to be good for their constituents and the states they represent.

Another of our findings, which may have broader implications for the Senate and the country, is that not only do women sponsor more legislation, but also they collaborate more broadly with their colleagues. We looked at all the bills introduced in the U.S House of Representatives since 1984 and who sponsored them, and we found that women work with a much broader range of co-sponsors than their male counterparts.

This ability to collaborate may be particularly important as we move into some of the really big challenges in the next term. The fiscal cliff is the most obvious one. There are going to have to be a lot of deals done. And it is not impossible that we will revisit some aspects of healthcare reform and start long-term entitlement reform. There are big issues for President Obama’s second term, during which women may play a really interesting role in helping to bridge some of the partisan gaps.

Why do women tend to better perform in public office than men?

There are two main reasons. First, women have to be more effective in order to win elections. There still exists a substantial amount of discrimination among the electorate—something on the order of 20 percent of people express some reservations about voting for a woman, even today. When you have that sizable a portion of the electorate predisposed against you, you have to be better than the person you are running against in order to get the same number of votes. When you see a woman winning, she often comes in with a better set of skills, more appeal, more charisma. Whatever the political talent is, in order to get elected, women have to have more of it. And that is what we think makes the women who win better legislators once in office.

Secondly, women work closely with more of their colleagues then men do. The reasons for this are probably less tangible and harder to measure, but there is some research suggesting it is a matter of style. Men and women politicians have different styles of legislation and leadership. Women tend to be more collaborative, which is why we see them co-sponsoring bills with a wider network of collaborators than men typically have.

What will happen as increasing numbers of women are elected to political office?

While this election was an important gain, there is a long, long way yet to go for increasing the number of women in public office. After almost a century of suffrage, a group of people who represent 50 percent of our population are only 20 percent of the Senate.

The somewhat ironic implications of our theory are that as women become more successful and more widely accepted as politicians, eventually they simply will be equally as effective as their male counterparts and we won’t see a difference in performance. That will be a mark of success rather than failure, although we will see it reflected in a decline in the effectiveness advantage that women in office now have.

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