Do Women Legislators Benefit From An Underdog Effect?

Politico ran an article yesterday about a new Stanford/University of Chicago study finding that women lawmakers outperform their male counterparts. The study focuses on three measures of performance: how many bills legislators introduce, how many co-sponsors they recruit, and, most significantly, how much discretionary spending they bring home to their districts. In all three categories, women are a head above men. On average, the study found, they sponsor three and co-sponsor 26 more bills per Congress than male legislators, recruit 25 more co-sponsors per term, and rake in 9 percent more discretionary spending. (You can download the report here.)

While these numbers are pretty jaw-dropping, they don't necessarily indicate more effective legislation. The study's authors did look into whether women pass more legislation than men, though they chose not to include these figures because the gender margin was relatively insignificant, and because so few bills and amendments are passed by anyone. They also controlled for non-gender factors like seniority, minority or majority status, party affiliation, etc. So while measuring efficacious lawmaking is clearly a tricky endeavor, this study does seem to pony up fairly significant results in some of the few categories that can actually be quantified.

As for explanation, the authors suggest that, with so few women making it to the upper rungs of government (just 17 percent of Congress is female), the threshold for skills and ambition might be higher for female legislators than for men. And once they're there, it's possible that they work harder. Politico quotes Rep. Judy Biggert as saying that she's always had "the drive to work two, three times harder than men" and cites the "self-doubt" many female lawmakers must overcome.

This self-doubt is evidenced by the persistent "self-starter gap" discussed in this DoubleX profile of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Whereas most men decide to run for office on their own, women tend to launch their campaigns only after being urged to run by an outside party:

Nancy Pelosi, for example, says she only ran after her then-dying predecessor, Sala Burton, begged her to. Sarah Palin's political career started when she was recruited as a twentysomething to try for a seat on the Wasilla City Council. Even Hillary Clinton says that the turning point in her decision to run for the U.S. Senate came when a young woman whispered "Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton, dare to compete," into her ear at a public event honoring girls' participation in sports.

Gillibrand's story is refreshing in its diversion from this trend--she knew she wanted to run for office in elementary school. I wonder if there are age-group performance gaps similar to this study's gender findings (the research being controlled for experience/seniority, of course). If so, Gillibrand, as not just one of a minority of women in the Senate but as its youngest member, may be a new breed of underdog. She's working extra hard not to overcome her insecurities but to gain enough experience to compete with the best of best--many of the best being women.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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