Why Women Make Better Politicians

Women are still greatly underrepresented in elected office—even though new research shows they may be more effective politicians than their male counterparts.

Ninety years after the 19th Amendment guaranteed their participation in American politics, women are still greatly underrepresented in elected office—even though new research shows they may be more effective politicians than their male counterparts. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women currently hold:


  • 16.8% of seats in the Senate and House of Representatives
  • 22.5% of statewide executive offices (including governors and lieutenant governors)
  • 24.6% of state legislative positions
  • 17.5% of mayoral positions in cities above 30,000 people
  • But an ongoing study by Sarah Anzia at Stanford University and Christopher Berry at the University of Chicago has found that districts served by women legislators are at a distinct advantage over those represented by men: U.S. congresswomen bring home roughly 9 percent more discretionary spending than congressmen. As a result, districts that elect women to the House of Representatives receive, on average, about $49 million more each year. The report finds that bringing home more federal dollars and benefits doesn't hurt women legislators' performance in policy-making—congresswomen sponsor more bills and obtain more co-sponsorships for their legislation than their male colleagues do.

    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. 

    Robinson is living proof that this feminine style of leadership can be both effective and popular. Halfway through her term as president, she had an unprecedented approval rating of 93%. She achieved this not by playing down her femininity but by embracing it. "When I was elected President of Ireland, I was determined to show that I brought to it the fact that I was a woman and was going to do it with various skills and I felt that they were enabling, problem solving, being more inclined not so much to want to lead in a kind of a natural way, but rather to lead by discussion and empowerment of others—to lead by example, lead by nurturing." But there is still a double standard for women politicians, she says. "If men are bold and assertive, that’s admired. If women are, it’s called shrill."

    And if there is one rule in politics, it is that action is less important than perception. But here things get complicated for female politicians in general. In terms of individual leadership traits, women are perceived to possess more of these traits than men, but that doesn't translate to being perceived as better overall leaders. In a 2008 Pew Research Center survey of eight important leadership traits, women outperformed men on five and tie on two. Americans ranked women higher in honesty, intelligence, compassion, creativity, and outgoingness—by as much as 75 percent. And in the qualities of hard work and ambition, men and women tied, according to the survey. The only quality in which men scored higher than women is decisiveness, in which men and women were separated by a mere 11 percentage points. Yet when asked the single question if men or women make better leaders, the results seemed to contradict these other findings: a mere 6 percent of the 2,250 adults surveyed say women make better political leaders than men, with 21 percent favoring men and 69 percent saying the sexes are equal in this area, which explains the report's subtitle, "A Paradox in Public Attitudes."

    So what accounts for this perceptual paradox? Politics professor Michele Swers of Georgetown University tells Big Think that it's not simply a matter of if women are more effective legislators; party politics plays an essential role in who gets elected. “If you look at how people react to candidates, there are certain stereotypes that people have in their mind about what’s a women’s issue and what’s not a women’s issue, so you may be more likely to prefer a female candidate if what’s on your mind are issues like health care and education, for example,” she says.  "However, when I’m in the voting booth, I’m voting for the Republican or I’m voting for the Democrat, so those gender stereotypes interact with that type of thing as well,” she adds.

    A female Republican candidate, for example, might sway a voter by being Republican or by being female, and for following the policies perceived to be favored by either, Swers explains. Essentially, more women are elected to the highest ranks in politics when more are candidates from prominent political parties. The difficulty lies in producing a political system, both in the U.S. and around the world, that accomplishes this.  

    More Resources

    — Anzia and Berry, "The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?"

    — Pew Research Center, "Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader: A Paradox in Public Attitudes?

    Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

    Big Think interview with Nancy Pelosi, Representative (D-California); Speaker of the House

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    New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

    Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
    • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
    • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.