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Would Debt-Ceiling Circus Occur With Women in Charge?

• August 03, 2011 • 12:31 PM

Academics and advocates are asking if there were lots more women in the U.S. government whether the debt-ceiling debacle would have been allowed to develop.

Congress did finally pass a deal to raise the debt ceiling in the 11th hour (or just 12 hours before default). But no one seems to be cheering the resolution for this reason: The unsightly process that got Congress to this point has revealed an institution so dysfunctional just 2 percent of Americans have anything nice to say about its recent behavior.

Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike have instead overwhelmingly summed up the debt-ceiling debate in a new Pew survey with bitter words like “ridiculous,” “disgusting,” “stupid” and “childish.” On the website of Foreign Policy magazine, wonks are debating if this is the “worst Congress ever.” And over at the American Enterprise Institute blog, Andrew Biggs is wondering if members of Congress are even worth the salaries taxpayers pay them.

But here’s an intriguing question as Americans pick through the postmortem on the uncompromising politicians who dragged the country to the brink of economic uncertainty: Would women have done this?

Women make up 17 percent of the current Congress (the Gang of Six in the Senate had none, and the House, Senate and White House leaders who negotiated the final agreement included just one, Nancy Pelosi). Research that highlights the value of diverse voices in decision-making, as well as findings about the leadership styles of women from the boardroom to the state house invite the hypothetical as voters ponder how to avoid more of the same mess in Washington after 2012. [class name="dont_print_this"]

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“If the numbers were flipped, if 17 percent of Congress were male, would this be different?” asked Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “I think it would have been different. I think, first of all, there would have been more discussion and compromise, and compromise wouldn’t have been seen as a negative thing as much.”

A Congress with only 17 percent men is pretty tough to imagine. More realistically, the 2012 Project — which aims to get more women of both parties into office during the upcoming election — is hoping voters who’ve just witnessed the logical conclusion of macho confrontation will realize that values society may dismiss as “weak” in women (accommodation, compromise, listening) would come in pretty handy in Washington.

The 2012 Project is calling this a “teachable moment.” And Walsh, one of its leaders, ropes into that moment not just the debt limit debate, but also the 11th-hour suspense over a potential government shutdown in April, as well as recent sex scandals involving Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Edwards. All of these incidents, she suggests, speak to an element of risk-taking that may mark one of the differences between male and female leadership styles.

“This process has taken us precariously close to the edge,” she said of the debt-ceiling talks. “And I think that there’s evidence that women might not have been willing to take this kind of risk in the same way.”

It’s been difficult to study women in Congress for the obvious reason that there just aren’t that many of them. But researchers at Rutgers have found a larger pool of subjects among state legislatures.

“We’ve found women tend to feel a responsibility to listen to the voices of people who aren’t necessarily usually at the table, voices of women, families, children, poor people. It’s what tends to make women more moderate in general,” Walsh said. “That willingness to listen, even if you end up disagreeing — it feels like a lost art in Washington right now.”

LZ Granderson, a CNN columnist who also recently lamented the dearth of women in the debt talks, points to neuroscience research suggesting women’s brains are wired to respond differently to stress than men.

Psychologists have additionally found that men act more aggressively in groups — such as the one leading behind-the-scenes negotiations over the debt ceiling — made up largely of other men. And political scientist Cindy Simon Rosenthal has studied female committee chairs in state legislatures and argued that they have subtly redefined political leadership to emphasize consensus and collaboration.

There are, of course, women politicians who don’t fit these descriptions. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin could top many lists of the most steadfastly uncompromising politicians in the country, male or female. But social science, Walsh points out, is full of generalizations that don’t speak to everyone.

“None of our research says ’100 percent of women do this or do that,’” she said. “But if we’re taking about majorities, large majorities of women versus minority numbers of men having the same trait, then you start to see some patterns.”

There is a danger in talking about women’s unique contributions to politics that their supporters wind up further stereotyping them — in an unflattering way. Compromise, as a concept, is not so far removed from “caving in.” And “listening” can easily be mistaken as the opposite of action. But Walsh says she isn’t too concerned that female politicians are harmed when people argue that they’re different from their male colleagues. Society just needs to recognize that the ways in which they’re different are positive, she says — and Walsh thinks more people will start to see that now.

“If you come to the table thinking compromise is a terrible, awful thing, and you should never give up, daring people to bring it on, then you might find women’s styles not an asset,” she said. “I would say that looking at what has just happened over these last number of weeks and months on this one issue, you have to say that part of what has made this system feel broken is the fact that people are dug in and that there’s not a willingness to listen, not a willingness to compromise.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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