When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) explained why Republican members were taking the unusual step of bringing in a female Arizona prosecutor to ask questions for them of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, he didn’t say it was because the Republican wing of the committee doesn’t have any female members.
In a statement Tuesday, Grassley said the "goal is to de-politicize the process and get to the truth, instead of grandstanding and giving senators an opportunity to launch their presidential campaigns.” Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, echoed those thoughts, saying Rachel Mitchell, who runs the special victims division of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, had been hired to “ask these questions in a respectful and professional way. We want this hearing to be handled very professionally, not a political sideshow.”
Yet there is little question that hiring a female outsider will save Republicans from the glare of an all-male GOP panel asking presumably intimate and painful questions on live television to Christine Blasey Ford, who has alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. And it seems likely designed to also help prevent an awkward replay of the Anita Hill hearings from 1991, when an all-male panel uncomfortably grilled Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s accuser.
But if Republicans are hoping that bringing in a female prosecutor will dramatically change public opinion about the optics of the hearing, they could be in for a surprise.
Research highlighted in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by political scientist Diana O’Brien and her colleagues, Amanda Clayton at Vanderbilt University and Jennifer Piscopo at Occidental College, studied how Americans view decisions made by an all-male panel or a gender-balanced one. In experiments, they had people read a fictitious newspaper article about a state legislative committee considering sexual harassment policies. Some were told the panel was eight men; others were told the panel was split evenly between men and women.
When decisions about the policies were made by an all-male panel, respondents were more likely to think the procedure was unfair, should be overturned, and reported less trust in the decision-makers. Interestingly, that held true whether the respondent was a man, woman, Democrat or Republican.
“We find that people really don’t like all-male panels, especially when they’re making a decision that goes against women,” said O’Brien, a professor at Texas A&M University, in an interview.
But here’s the kicker. In O’Brien’s experiments, adding a single woman to the mix -- where the fictitious article described a legislative committee that had seven men and one woman -- didn’t change the results, O’Brien said. In fact, the results still looked basically the same as they did with an all-male panel.
“People understand tokenism,” she said. Of Republicans' decision to bring in a female prosecutor, she said, “I don’t think this is going to have the effect they want it to have, mitigating the concerns of having men interrogate women."
Mitchell may indeed be highly qualified and experienced -- and reports describe her as having an “empathetic, professional questioning style” that has been supportive of sex abuse victims -- but people are likely to recognize it’s still the senators who will be making the decision. The same uproar wouldn’t be happening, for instance, if the Senate Finance Committee (which also has no Republican women) was casting a vote about, say, trade policy.
Indeed, O’Brien did follow-up experiments that substituted the issue of sexual harassment with animal mistreatment in the newspaper article. In those, there was no real difference in how people viewed an all-male or gender-balanced panel when it came to whether they thought the outcome was fair.
Still, that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter. Even in those experiments, on topics wholly unrelated to gender issues, O’Brien said people responded that they felt better about the decision-making process, and better about the institution, when women were part of the decision.
In other words, diversity in leadership roles doesn’t just matter on issues and policy agendas related to women. Having a balance of gender among the people making decisions underscores faith in our institutions themselves, and correcting that can’t come from short-term choices, but from a long-term commitment to increasing diversity both within the overall ranks of the Senate GOP and on powerful committees like the judiciary. There are only six Republican women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, and eight of its 20 committees have no female members from the GOP side of the aisle, according to a report in Roll Call.
In many cases, a lack of diversity can get overlooked, seen as a “nice to have” or something that “looks good” but doesn’t present immediate concerns. The current scenario is different, O’Brien said. “This in particular is a moment that’s really drawing attention to the need for women’s presence, and in a way that’s not just optics."