The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Female politicians are more effective for their constituents, a study says. So why aren’t there more of them in office?

Angela Alsobrooks is sworn in as Prince George's county executive with her daughter Alex at her side on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Angela Alsobrooks is sworn in as Prince George's county executive with her daughter Alex at her side on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Angela Alsobrooks, the first woman elected Prince George’s county executive, thanked her mother among others during an inaugural address on Monday. “She made me proud to be a woman, a servant and a fighter,” Alsobrooks said.

She’d been the county’s youngest and first female state’s attorney, making clear early on her zero tolerance for domestic violence. Alsobrooks personally consoled abused women and their children, sought to reduce the stigma of reporting the crimes and enlisted the county’s faith-based community in dispute resolution and counseling.

Men in that position have certainly shown concern for such crimes, but none had brought anywhere near the relentless passion shown by Alsobrooks. This year, domestic homicides are down 20 percent in Prince George’s, evidence of what the newly elected county executive called “the power of our collective strength.”

A proud woman, humble servant and tenacious fighter. Thank you, mom.

Angela Alsobrooks takes office vowing to boost Prince George’s County

Muriel E. Bowser, the first woman elected to consecutive terms as D.C. mayor, has also paid a lot of attention to a group made up mostly of mothers and children in distress: the homeless.

As a D.C. Council member, Bowser had been particularly upset by the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who is believed to have been kidnapped from a dilapidated homeless shelter in 2014. Bowser took office as mayor the following year, having vowed in her campaign to close that shelter and open new homes for homeless families throughout the city.

Even though her plan to open new shelters was mired in controversy and opposition from some in the community, the first of seven new buildings for the homeless opened in September.

She also adopted an infant and made the announcement in an official statement — “So today, I am proud to announce that I am a mom!” — joining the ranks of working mothers.

It’s not one thing that makes female politicians different from their male counterparts, but it’s clear that many bring something uniquely different to the job. The way many talk, act and unabashedly express their commitment to homeland and people. And it just might add up to what all kinds of studies have been pointing to for years: Women are better at governing than men.

Compassion, empathy, civility, cooperation and compromise — a Pew poll in September found that women value those qualities more than men. More women advocate for creating a safe and respectful workplace, being honest and ethical, standing up for what you believe, valuing people from different backgrounds.

Women excel in characteristics that matter most.

According to a study by Amy Steigerwalt and Jeffrey Lazarus, political science professors at Georgia State University, women have a harder time getting elected than men, but when they do get elected, they do a better job serving their constituents and keep their jobs.

Among the obstacles that are unique to women: media coverage.

“It is still true that the stories published about female candidates overwhelmingly focus on soft news aspects of the race, such as women’s appearance or their family lives, as opposed to their policy positions,” said the study, which was published in the World Economic Forum in March.

“Simply adding information about a female candidate’s clothes to a news story — such as discussing Nancy Pelosi’s heels or Elizabeth Warren’s glasses — has been found to decrease the likelihood of voters casting a ballot in their favor.”

The Pew poll found other hurdles. “More Americans see traits like ambition, decisiveness and assertiveness as helpful for men . . . while more say that physical attractiveness helps women than say it helps men.”

There’s more, so much so you have to wonder how a woman could win any election.

Kathy Tran, the first Asian American woman to win a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, explained during her campaign why she had decided to run for office. She said she was pregnant at the time and realized that her baby was due in January 2017 — on the same day Donald Trump would be inaugurated president.

“I realized I needed to step up and fight for my children’s future,” Tran said.

Tran’s parents had emigrated from Vietnam. They loved the United States and the opportunities that it provided. She wanted her children — all children — to enjoy those same opportunities. She was also an advocate of equal pay for women, affordable health care and housing, public safety and education.

Those issues benefit all families. But frequently it is women who are pushing hardest for change in those arenas.

Tran had declared during her campaign, “I will oppose any attempt by politicians to interfere in a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.”

Other female candidates made the same vow. And it paid off. Of the 140 Virginia General Assembly seats up for election, women took 38.

At her swearing in earlier this year, Tran nursed her 1-year-old baby.

Standing up for what she believes.

Yet roughly “three-quarters of adults (74 percent) say that being assertive mostly helps a man’s chances of getting elected to high political office; half of all adults say it helps women,” the Pew poll found. “In fact, one-quarter (23 percent) say that being assertive mostly hurts women in politics, compared with just 5 percent who say this about men.

“Only one trait is seen, on balance, as being more harmful than helpful to both men and women: showing emotions. Still, more say this hurts women seeking leadership positions than it does men.”

But women have found an antidote, according to the Georgia State professors.

“First, women spend more time and effort communicating with their constituents than men,” they wrote. “Second, women deliver more government spending to their districts than male representatives do.”

There are many among the new crop of female elected officials who are capable of doing just that.

Correction: An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect date for when Kathy Tran’s baby was due. The baby was due in January 2017, not January 2016.

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