What If Congress Was More Than 17% Women?

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I rarely ever get political here…

And truth is, while this post references the recent inanity going on in Washington, D.C., it’s not about politics. It’s about how men often operate in very different ways than women when under pressure, under the public eye and in the presence of women. And how the difference may do a huge disservice not only to them, but to the people they strive to serve.

Here’s a fascinating exchange from yesterday’s NPR Morning Edition:

VEDANTAM: Well, we often think that the people who sit around the table, all they’re bringing to the table are their political views, their ideologies, their party loyalties and so on. But they’re also guys. I mean literally the people who sit around a lot of these negotiating tables are guys. The sex ratio of the people in a given place plays a huge role in how those people behave and how they negotiate with one another.

Mr. VLADAS GRISKEVICIUS (Psychologist, University of Minnesota): Any places where there are more men than women, the men are becoming more aggressive with each other and they’re competing with each other to attract women.

VEDANTAM: We’re not suggesting that Barack Obama and John Boehner are trying to catch Nancy Pelosi’s eye. But what Griskevicius has found is that … In experiments, when men feel there are lots of other men around, they tend to pose more, they tend to talk tough, they become shortsighted, they take bigger bets. Any of that sound familiar?

Now, can anyone tell me the percentage of men in the U.S. Congress?

Congress is 83% DUDES! THAT’S not a good thing.

Really makes me wonder how business and government and life might be different with more women in positions of governance and leadership.

Curious, what’s your experience/thoughts around this?

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45 responses

45 responses to “What If Congress Was More Than 17% Women?”

  1. I wonder things like this all the time. I’m so glad you decided to write about this. Women need to be more prevalent in all areas of government as well as business. Everything is off balance and I agree, it does us all a disservice.

    BUT, as a woman, I will say – this is not the fault of men. Women need to push ourselves into these positions, stand up and take charge.

    Great post, Jonathan.


  2. Then I suppose we’d have more women doing whatever they have to do to get more votes than men doing whatever they have to do to get more votes.

  3. Erin says:

    Very difficult to get away from our biology, no matter how “evolved” we think we are. Studies (and observations) like these may give us the intellectual insight to behave differently (if we desire change), but intellectual understanding just cannot seem to trump hormones/biology.

  4. Jason says:

    I agree not just on the male postering aspect for the women’s benifit but also just due to the psychological differences. Women are more the problem solvers and look for compromise.

  5. Thanks for this, Jonathon! It’s an excellent topic for reflection.

    What Mr. Griskevicius suggests can be found in all layers of our society. Not as an absolute, mind you, but as a sound generalization. Its presence can be found from the most banal of sitcoms through the highest levels of government and academia. In my personal experience, the most effective boards and committees have always consisted of balanced gender groups or those having a slightly higher ratio of women. As with most aspects of life, balance plays a mightily significant role in success over the long term.

  6. Kathy says:

    I think this might be part of it but something else is at work. Congress has been male dominated forever. It has been able to get work done. It has been able to consider what is best for the nation instead of simply what is good for me and my party. There was give and take. There was compromise.
    I hope they get it together soon for the nation. I wish I were not so sure they can’t do it anymore.

  7. Jaye says:

    If we were a matriarchal society, (as some are in India) there would be less war and higher rates of literacy.

  8. gwyn says:

    I agree with Kathy there is more at work here than biology, but I also have no doubt that a higher ratio of women would help.

    I also agree with Stephanie Burns that
    “Women need to push ourselves into these positions, stand up and take charge.”

    And yes we need this in all areas of government business and education.

    • caitlyn says:

      Lots to agree with here but I worry about the “push” ourselves up idea. If women push into positions of power in certain versions of pushing we are likely to have the type of powerful women in these positions that are most like men rather than supporting a diversity of styles of both men and women.

      People who are comfortable with conflict get elected – and then engage in conflict. Male and female. Is there a way to restructure so that we keep some of those folks and include some that are less inclined toward conflict?

  9. Tom Bentley says:

    John Boehner has done very well with accessing the side of his personality that allows him to weep in public, but other than that, he wouldn’t know a compromise from a cupcake. Generalities can sometimes stink of all-or-nothing shallowness, but I believe that if there were more women in places of political power there would be more cooperation and less combat.

    Though watch out if Mama Grizzly starts stalking the halls of Congress…

  10. Tracey says:

    This is EXACTLY what I was thinking yesterday when trying to figure out why they are acting they way they are.

  11. Tim says:

    It has taken 2000 years of great effort to make women second class citizens around the world and it will take more then a few short years to bring equality to the table. There is certainly strong arguments to be made that we need a world run by women, and yet, we cannot get the female population in the US to band together for simple basic rights. I fear it will be another generation before we can hope for this kind of leadership.

  12. As a woman, of course I’m going to agree with you here, but also as someone who studies neuroscience, human behavior, and decision science, it’s also just true. Both sexes are needed in any given situation to balance things out. Both sexes have strengths and weaknesses.

    But we need a paradigm shift, still, in this country. You’d think the three waves of feminism would’ve taken care of things, but it hasn’t. We can put more women in congress and in business, but until we get it at a deep level that both sexes are necessary and important we won’t make headway. George Bush was just as startlingly idiotic as Sarah Palin ever was, but hers was a woman’s voice so easier to dismiss (by both men and women).

    I could write on this for hours, but I’m really glad you brought this up. Women can fight for the positions, but when more men join in understanding the importance of well-balanced leadership, we’ll make progress much faster.

  13. Bunny says:

    This was such a hot button for me.. I tried 4 times to write a comment and deleted it for fear of getting my butt kicked.

  14. YES YES YES – There have been a number of OpEds and academic studies analyzing how different our global economy would be had it been “LEHMAN SISTERS” instead of “LEHMAN BROTHERS.” See Nicholas Kristoff’s NYT OpEd… Mistresses of The Universe. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08kristof.html

    There have been also been studies showing that companies with a higher percentage of women in the upper echelons have higher profits and better stock price performance… see this from Catalyst: http://www.catalyst.org/press-release/73/companies-with-more-women-board-directors-experience-higher-financial-performance-according-to-latest-catalyst-bottom-line-report

    This latest debt-ceiling debacle shows this dialogue needs additional attention!

    During my 15 years working in “high finance” I saw this testosterone dynamic over and over. As someone who focuses her financial literacy advocacy work on women – and who is often asked “why women??” – your powerful post illustrates perfect the benefits of encouraging more women to become active in financial and political dialogues. Bravo for highlighting!

  15. Jonathan, your post and the NPR story caught our attention. I’m with a nonpartisan campaign called The 2012 Project and our mission is to inspire record numbers of women to run for state legislatures or Congress in 2012, as it’s a once-a-decade opportunity due to open seats. More info at http://www.the2012project.us

    There’s no question that our nation would benefit from having accomplished women at the table.

    More thoughts on that NPR story: http://t.co/z8id7uc

  16. Jonathan-
    I’ve been writing about women and power in the workplace lately, and Deborah Tannen in her book “Can We Talk?” has a very interesting take on how the conversational styles of men and women fulfill very different needs for them.
    Men speak to achieve rank and to not be pushed around. Women speak to gain intimacy.
    We have a whole bunch of men achieving status on the backs of our financial situation, and too few women to create intimacy and connection.
    Such a bummer, time to change.
    My fall is going to be focused on teaching women to get comfortable with their own power in the workplace. A groundswell is needed.
    Really happy that you are bringing this issue to the attention of your readers.

  17. Women are natural consensus builders, and as I watched the showdown at the OK Corall on CNN last night, I could not help but wonder whether we would be in this mess if there were more women in our Congress and Senate.

  18. Mark says:

    Excellent thought here. To take the distinction further, I think there are also some generational roles and biases that come in to play when we talk about the gender dynamic. The degree to which Mr. Griskevicius’ applies varies from politician to politician. I believe this is in no small part related to the generational perspectives of gender (and other social factors) that each politician relates to most closely.

    We are at a major turning point with regard to many policies that are intertwined with social perspectives. As one person pointed out earlier, the boys’ club of politicians has been able to work more gracefully in the past. Could that possibly be because their similarities were perceived to be greater than their differences? As we get a more diverse range of leadership working together in all levels of government, politicians will have to learn new skills in finding consensus. I think the gender behavior you’re discussing is going to be at the forefront of that change.

  19. If I were a woman and I wanted to be in Congress, I would do it, simple as that, and not pay attention to numbers. Sure things would be different!

  20. misty says:

    very interesting thought! I have always found that companies that I work with that have a balance are more even tempered, so this would be interesting to see in Washington!

  21. Jonathan, I love that you put this out there for discussion! I totally agree. Men do posture more when around other men. This country would be radically different if the majority of Congress was women instead of men. Women naturally are more able to compromise, look out for the welfare of the community and build consensus. I look forward to the day when the voting public begins to understand that and look for something a bit different in their leaders.

  22. We need more honest and successful business people to run for office and stop electing Lawyers and we need term limits, too.

  23. Dakota says:

    Maybe this will help:
    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!

    Snow White 🙂

  24. That is such an interesting comment and we were just having that same conversation in our local coffee bar this morning. I really do believe that women are much less aggressive when trying to come to a compromise in a heated situation – political, or not. It’s simply a difference in biology, where women are nurturers and caretakers and men are rattling their swords to fight in order to solve problems. There are women who have been in power – Indira Ghandi and Golda Meir – who have perhaps shown more male behavior. But, it’s the same in corporations – women have to “become” more male to get to positions of power. Wouldn’t it be nice to change that 83% to a much lower number (50%, say)and see what happens?

  25. cory says:

    Jonathan, thank you for opening the subject.There actually is research that notes that once women make up more than 25-30% of a governing body, there is a noticeable change in that body around issues of concern to women: stability, sustainability, social justice, health care, education and anything that affects the welfare of children. It does not take 50%. It “only” takes that many to be taken seriously, and to create enough alliance with like-minded men to significantly sway what happens in a congress or a parliament. Unfortunately, the US has never even been close. It is interesting to note that Scandinavian countries, who are consistently rated as having the happiest populations on the planet, also have the largest percentages of women in their highest government offices. Acknowledging that I am making a sweeping generalization, women(particularly mothers)can be exceptionally frugal in service of the things they care about, but they also don’t squawk about pooling resources to take care of the tribe. Yes, indeed, it is interesting to contemplate what would be going on under the Capitol dome right now if there were that kind of representation here.

    Cory Annis, MD

  26. A vagina seeking power isn’t much different than a penis seeking power. Both simply want control and power.

  27. Farnoosh says:

    I rarely get political too but Jonathan got me all fired up here and I had to speak up here. What does sex have to do with it and why can we just not treat everyone as equal? If true equality is what we stand for, then sex should not matter at all. It should be about smarts, intelligence, an open mind and all the other qualities that make a leader what he or she may be. I can’t stand arguments like this: what if we had more women here? We would have a different mess! Women can be just as awful, stupid, quick to judge, and rash just as men can be. It has nothing to do with sex and the more we put emphasis on sex being a differentiators, the more we divide, rather than unite. I would rather be judged by my qualifications and my offers to this world than by the fact that I have a vagina and a couple of gorgeous breasts! We need smart, intelligent and qualified PEOPLE in positions of leadership, regardless of sex. Period. That, in my opinion, is true equality.

  28. Cory says:

    Agreeing with Farnoosh totally in fabulous theory. There is also research about the dynamics of power that indicate that given enough of it, we’d likely see just as many women embroiled in the same types of ridiculous sexual scandals we now think only happen to men. Apparently, humans really do shitty stuff with power “because we can,” quoting former President Clinton.

    But I do have a final two cents worth germane to the goings-on in Washington this weekend: When was last time you saw two women playing chicken? Just sayin’…

  29. Owen Marcus says:

    Your post and all these comments speak to how the old model doesn’t work. If only because men still hold this kind of power… men need to change. As men we will default to competing for rank, attention getting from women and winning at any cost, I know I have been one of those guys who will lose the bigger vision for getting the win.

    In our men’s groups every week we unravel the old model and learn the emerging model of masculinity. At first it is difficult for a man to surrender to his deeper feelings and wants, while still staying in his masculinity.

    Ever since the Industrial Revolution when our fathers started working more and not being home, as boys we lost a masculine model of emotionality. So today we feel to be aware let alone express our more vulnerable emotions we are feminine because our modeling comes from women. I am not making women wrong, actually I am very appreciative.

    As men we need to use some of that courage we use in other venues to begin to get honest and express from new places that might create new results.

  30. Clifford Ward says:

    Being a man, and having come from a family of strong women, I married strong women (my first wife of 27 years died of cancer, my 2nd supported her invalid husband for years). I have no fear of strong women, but respect and know for a fact their husbands loved them for it. I think Congress should represent the people but not make mandatory quotas by gender. However, women aren’t always shown by the press for their true strengths. I would happily support a woman for any position, like I would any man, if they were well qualified for the job.

  31. Jon,
    Interesting thoughts. Would men posture less with a larger # of women around or would they then try to strut their stuff to catch the eye of the women?
    Of course all of this is generalizations, although there’s consistently truth within generalizations.
    I believe that if we had a larger # & proportion of women in congress, over time we would see significant differences. I want to believe that those differences would equate with improvement – more collaboration, less posing but not immediately. I think the congressional, bipartisan system that has grown up could stifle their impact & with some infect them as well. I certainly have seen Michele Bachman “pose” and dig her heels in with her position.
    But I keep my fingers crossed that women would help or that SOMETHING stops the insanity.

  32. Jodi Kaplan says:

    Reviving an old t-shirt slogan, “A woman’s place is in the house (and the Senate).

    Meanwhile, the men are having a pissing contest – instead of “doing the work.”

  33. Bunny says:

    I just found this article on a book written by Dan Abrams. He found many studies that showed that women were better at many things than men. Not to knock men… just thought this would be interesting to you.


  34. Jason says:

    More women in congress would lead to more practical solutions being offered as women seem to see more the bigger picture and rifications then men do in general…just saying.

  35. Cassandra James says:

    It is my perspective that women are and have always been in a position of power. We are socialized to believe we are victims.
    I have been in this body 45 years and I am just beginning to tap into what it means to develop my humanity as well as the power and gifts of the feminine. I had to seek because such wisdom is not part of the mainstream culture.
    I do not believe gender matters as much as we all base our decisions on the wisdom that flows from being rooted in a deep belief in and respect for humanity.

  36. […] Dad Jonathan Fields poses a great question over on his […]

  37. Erica says:

    I think the key word here is “balance.” I don’t believe that a country run by women would be intrinsically better than a country (or a world) run by men. Large groups of women can be just as divisive as groups of men can be aggressive. The important thing is balance; to have aggressive tendencies paired with empathy and consensus-building. One holds firm to principle, the other negotiates to find agreement (and both of those roles can be held by either men or women). Neither is effective without the other; balance will always be more successful.

  38. Jessica says:

    I read an article once recently about how ‘beautiful’ women were getting fired because they were very distracting. If this means that we must dress like slobs and cover up our natural beauty so that the men aren’t blindsided, I don’t know that anything will every be solved.

    Before any political or business hotshots are able to handle a larger percentage of women in power it might be helpful if the pornography, prostitution and trafficking going on behind closed doors with many of the powers that be were put to an end.

    Unfortunately, if a man spends umpteen hours per day objectifying women its going to be hard for him to look at his Executive Assistant with a clear head, never mind a beautiful female leader.

    Not sure how this will change.

  39. Annette says:

    In Norway it is law that 50% of board members have to be women. The equality laws in Scandinavia are very progressive and I’ve found it not only to be true in the business area but also at home
    Global Gender Gap – Scandinavia leading the way:

  40. Interesting… Can’t hold out that the UK parliament is any better but I did JUST finish reading an article that asserts that groups with higher percentages of women take more intellegent decisions. What more can I say… 😉


  41. K00kyKelly says:

    Thank you for bringing this conversation up! So important to highlight a major inequality in our society! We do need more women in Congress and other elected positions. We need to change the way our society subtly discourages women from running or at least bring these things to light so women can face them directly and make a real decision.

    Unfortunately, women being present isn’t enough to change Congress on it’s own. It will change it somewhat as different life experiences and greater diversity bring to light subtleties of issues not considered before.

    As many commentors have pointed out above society ignores the dark side of women (and the light side of men!). The conversation going on in the comments is no exception. Get some women in there – their soft nurturing-ness will fix those men up who can’t seem to control themselves.

  42. Amy Cesario says:

    I think we are ready for another “Woman’s Movement”. Women are the decision makers on almost all large purchases, yet there aren’t enough making decisions on our country’s budget not to mention representing our voices in our local communities. I’ve been thinking about this for years Johnathan, thanks for recognizing.

  43. Jaye says:

    Very thought provoking article. It works the other way, too. When you have a lot of women in a conference or meeting, and a few men present, the silly female posturing begins.When the guy speaks, the ladies do not question or challenge. Nonsense like this finally caused me to give up the corporate world and start my own business.