Female senators need more seats at the table

 

THE president’s charm offensive continues—and this time, he’s turning it on the women of the U.S. Senate.

The 20 women currently serving in the Senate have been invited to dinner with the president on Tuesday, an event which follows similar sit-downs the president has had with Republicans and Democrats, both at the White House and at a Washington hotel. While this dinner is bipartisan, Obama will have plenty of friendly company: Of the 20 female senators, 16 of them are Democrats.


Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) will be one of the female senators to join President Obama for dinner Tuesday evening (Julie Denesha for The Washington Post).

 

It’s anyone’s guess what’s on the menu for the evening besides polite pleasantries, good food and the inevitable joke about Mitt Romney’s binders full of women. But there is one question that’s almost sure to be on table—how to make the Senate less dysfunctional—and the answer will actually be sitting around it.

Back in January, during a media discussion with the current female senators, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) told Diane Sawyer that “if we were in charge of the Senate and of the administration that we would have a budget deal by now.” A predictable discussion ensued, in which several of the senators chatted about how good women are at problem-solving, collaboration and bipartisanship. “I think by nature we are less confrontational and more collaborative,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Some of that may be true: There is academic research to back up the notion that women cross party lines more often than men—or at least are believed to do so—in order to make legislative deals and keep the focus on the policy, not the politics. This is hardly a government-only phenomenon. Women’s inclusive and collaborative leadership styles have become such common conventional wisdom that it’s hard to sort the stereotype from the science.

Ironically, those valued soft skills aren’t enough to change some people’s minds about female leaders. A 2008 Pew Research Center study, for instance, notes that while women are rated as far better at working out compromises and keeping government honest, three times as many people still believe men make better political leaders than women do.

At one-fifth of the body’s membership, the number of women in the Senate may have reached an all-time high, and they may be increasingly holding positions of power. But they are still a minority in the committees they work on, and far from representative of the population at large. Of the 16 standing committees, seven of them include three or fewer women as members. So however much women may be natural collaborators or consensus-builders, there’s an even bigger reason that more women in the Senate would give the president a better group with which to work.

It’s pretty simple: More women means greater diversity, which leads to better decision-making. The more varied the inputs, the better the output (and the Senate is greatly in need of better everything). One can only hope that if the president hosts a similar dinner in two years’ time, he needs an even bigger table.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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