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Do women in Congress work harder than their male colleagues?

- March 8, 2018
On International Women’s Day 2017 and A Day Without Women, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leads female members of Congress on the east steps of the Capitol. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Political scientists Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt of Georgia State University have just published a book, Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office. To mark International Women’s Day, March 8, I talked with them over email about their research. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Your book focuses on what you call “gendered vulnerability” for women in Congress. Can you explain what that is? 

Sure. Gendered vulnerability is the idea that women, due simply to their gender, believe that they are vulnerable to attack by voters, party elites, other political actors and even their colleagues. This stems from two factors. First, some research suggests that women confront a more difficult electoral environment — they must deal with gender stereotypes held by voters and political elites, biased media coverage (which in turn exacerbates voter-held gender stereotypes) and more competition when they run for reelection. Second, those concerns can be magnified by socialization processes that lead some women to doubt their qualifications and to feel like they have to work harder to prove themselves. As a result, we argue that female officeholders adopt a legislative strategy designed to overcome these disadvantages, real or perceived. 

Q: So what does that mean for how women in Congress do their jobs? 

Basically, women focus more on their constituents than men do. Female members of Congress are more likely to emphasize constituent services — communicating with voters and placing more staffers in district offices (which allows them to perform more casework). They’re also more likely to sit on committees that address issues that are important to their districts, to introduce and co-sponsor legislation that reflects their voters’ concerns, and to vote in line with their constituents’ interests. We also find that women consistently bring home to their districts more federal dollars in the form of “pork barrel” spending than men do. 

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One example comes from 2010. At that time, congressional earmarks — a way that money in spending bills gets directed to specific projects — were the subject of a big debate in Washington. That was partly because Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and others had been caught up in scandals related to the use of earmarks.

But while those men were in the headlines, it was actually women in Congress who were the real leaders in procuring money for their districts. For instance, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) brought home more earmarks (254) and more funding via earmarks ($565 million) than any other member of Congress. Likewise, four of the five top “earmarkers” in Congress were female senators. By this measure, women were doing more for their districts than men.

Q: Talk about the data you collected for the book. 

We wanted to explore this phenomenon as widely as possible, so we used several different approaches. First, we conducted more than 30 interviews with current and former staffers on Capitol Hill, as well as current and former members of Congress. We focused particularly on staffers who had worked for both male and female members and asked if they observed differences in the way each approached their jobs.

We were struck by two things. Staffers told us that the women they worked for were more worried about being questioned or challenged. That, in turn, led the staffers to perceive that female members worked harder than men. Not only do female members pay more attention to voters, the staff we talked to told us their female bosses felt a more pressing need to be prepared for all meetings, no matter who they were with.

We also collected data on a variety of activities for all members of Congress between 1993 and 2009. That included the number of staff positions, mail sent to their constituents, trips home, earmarks and other distributive spending, bill sponsorship and co-sponsorship, among others. All told, we examined more than a dozen different activities that members of Congress engage in.

Q: In some cases, it seems like the same patterns hold for both the House and Senate. In others, it looks like there are differences across chambers. Do those patterns tell us something about how the situation for women in the House and Senate might be somewhat different?

Interestingly, we started this project by writing a piece in 2009 about institutional differences between the chambers. So we do think that distinctions between the two — namely term length and majoritarian rules (or lack thereof) — also come in to play here. For example, in the House, women send much more mail back to their voters than men do. Alternatively, in the Senate women place more staffers in the district than men do. Both franking and district staffers are two different ways members of Congress achieve roughly the same goal, which is communication with constituents. Women in both chambers engage in more constituent-focused activity, but do so in slightly different ways. 

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Q: You end the book by discussing whether women are better legislators than men. Where do you come down on that question? 

Overall, yes. “Quality representation” refers to whether members of Congress represent the people in their districts. The evidence in our book certainly suggests that women tend to do this more effectively than men.

Q: So would electing more women make Congress work better?

We think more faithful constituent representation would make Congress a more effective institution, and so having more women in Congress would definitely make the institution work better. At the same time, one potential downside is that this might pull Congress away from focusing on the collective good. Our findings suggest female members do not feel as free to shrug off the interests of voters, even if voters’ interests may not be best for the nation as a whole.

However, our book is consistent with a host of other research that emphasizes that female legislators are generally more effective than men. They are better at getting their bills passed, and work in a more consensual manner. So perhaps the answer is that women better represent their own constituents, and also seek to ensure that stuff actually gets done.