Could women really have solved the fiscal cliff?


Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill. (Evan Vucci/AP)
December 13, 2012

If women were running the show, this whole fiscal cliff thing would be solved.

That was the essential message that came from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and that was greeted with nodding approval by the female senators of the 113th Congress in an interview with Diane Sawyer taped Tuesday. Collins shared that “I think if we were in charge of the Senate and of the administration, that we would have a budget deal by now.” She went on to say that “what I find is, with all due deference to our male colleagues, that women’s styles tend to be more collaborative.”

But would they really? Research doesn’t wholly support it.

Collins, of course, is addressing the stereotype that women’s leadership styles tend to be more relationship focused and consensus driven. Popular research, at least, shows this to be true: A recent survey by two leadership consultants, for instance, found that women outscored men on such skills as “building relationships” and “collaboration and teamwork” (not to mention almost every other skill, including typically male-associated strengths such as a “drive for results”). Detailed meta-analyses by social scientists also have found women to have a slight advantage when it comes to the sort of leadership skills seen to be effective in today’s more collaborative and less command-and-control driven world.

Still, the differences between male and female leadership styles are actually pretty small. And often, our image of women as collaborators—making peace between everyone from warring colleagues to squabbling toddlers—doesn’t actually come from our experience with how women behave when they’re placed in top leadership roles. For instance, writes leadership professor Ronald Riggio over at Psychology Today, when women in top jobs are studied, they “seem to exhibit the same sorts of leadership behaviors as their male counterparts.”

Because it is still difficult enough for women to get to the top, and because our society still (rightly or wrongly) has certain expectations for what a leader should be, “it could be the case that only women who exhibit the same sorts of leadership styles and behaviors as male leaders make it through.”

As a result, Collins’ promise of a faster deal if women were in charge would really depend on whether those women were in fact able to maintain “feminine” leadership skills in a male-dominated Congress. Maybe we’re starting to get there, what with the historic number of women entering the Senate this year and all the talk about Hillary Clinton being a hands-down favorite for the 2016 Democratic nod. But somehow I doubt that a Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting across the bargaining table from a President Michele Bachmann would produce anything all that different from what we’re seeing now.

I’m sure there’s some truth to the idea that women tend to be more consensus-driven and more collaborative than their male peers are. And I’d love to see what a moderate Republican senator like Susan Collins could do when negotiating with a center-left female Democratic president. But until the overall partisan culture in Washington and the expectations we have of the people leading both parties changes—somewhere women could have a real impact—the gender of the people at the bargaining table is probably going to come second.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

The best and worst places to work in government

Moral values and the fiscal cliff

Great leadership books in 2012

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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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