What’s The Magic Number?

Today, in the New York Times op-ed pages, we turn to the wisdom of “studies have shown” for clues as to how our new women representatives might perform. At 20 percent of the Senate and 18.6 percent of the House, those numbers are high. But in addition to the distribution issues I mentioned yesterday, as Mendelberg and Karpowitz point out, those numbers aren’t enough.

We found that when women constituted 20 percent of a decision-making body that operates by majority rule, the average woman took up only about 60 percent of the floor time used by the average man. Women were perceived — by themselves and their peers — as more quiescent and less effective. They were more likely to be rudely interrupted; they were less likely to strongly advocate their policy preferences; and they seldom mentioned the vulnerable. These gender dynamics held even when adjusting for political ideology (beliefs about liberalism and egalitarianism) and income.

This gets back somewhat to the issue of “token” representatives in a group, who feel pressure to conform. It also underscores how essential gender is. Note that the study does not presume that all these women have the same opinions. Whether they agree with one another or not, women speak up more when they are more equally represented. But how can we fix it?

One example we could look to is that of Poland, where in 2009, I watched their first serious non-partisan effort unfold. The “Kongres Kobiet,” or Women’s Congress, was organized largely to move beyond figureheads toward greater representation across the board. While some of the media had a heyday with the arguments that took place between women – who disagree on many issues as vehemently as their male counterparts – the event stimulated an important discussion that continues. By 2011, they had made some progress toward a parity law, requiring that 35 percent of the candidates on party lists be female.* Now in its fourth year, the Congress has created its own shadow cabinet to press the government to pay attention not only to gender equality and discrimination, but to how government policies impact women across the board.

Twenty percent may not be “enough” to close the gap. However, we can do more to support one another, even from outside the legislature, as the women in Poland have done. Rather than place their hopes in a failing “Women’s Party” that claimed to represent all women under a left-wing agenda, they gathered liberals and conservatives, artists and businesswomen, activists and scientists under one roof. And they hashed it out.

They’re still hashing it out. They’ll never all agree. They might never get to 50 percent. But they will be stronger together. They already are.

* The law does not ensure that 35 percent of those elected will be female; it simply requires the political parties to put forth women candidates.

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