Reflections on Women in Civility

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

NFWL recently co-hosted an event on civility with the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and the National Institute for Civil Discourse’s Next Generation. Our Executive Director, Jody Thomas, was invited to speak about the unique challenges women face in addressing civility and leadership in their legislature.

While many believe that women have a natural propensity to be civil or are are generally known to be more collaborative, there is plenty of research that has looked into how and why.

The most recent famous example of women cooperating better than their male counterparts was when ME Senator Susan Collins led the charge to end the 2011 government shutdown. She said, “I think if we were in charge of the Senate and of the administration that we would have a budget deal by now,” and many agreed. This incident sparked research from Jay Newton-Small, among others, to really look into why women can be more collaborative.

Newton-Small, a speaker at NFWL’s 2016 Annual Conference, argued that women were able to be influential in policy only when they reach a 20-30% level of participation, giving them what she calls in her book on the issue, Broad Influence. Without that percentage of women in leadership, it is hard for a woman to make impact.

The Center for American Women and Politics’ Kelly Dittmar has centered much of her research on the fact that women, far more than men, prize results over status. She has often quoted the fact that when asking elected officials what their number one reason to run for office was, gender mattered.  Female legislators cited the ability to effect change in society as the most important, while the number one reason for men… the fact that they always wanted to be a politician.

A variety of research (from UCONN and The American Political Science Review) has found that women interrupt less, but are interrupted more. Understanding leadership style is key in building coalitions, and women’s democratic style often reaches consensus more quickly than the autocratic style more typical of men. It is also understood that women tend to pay closer attention to other people’s nonverbal cues, which enables them to be more astute in understanding the nuances in opinions.

The National Bureau of Economic Research’s working paper on how gender affects bipartisanship concluded that women are indeed more likely to cooperate across party lines, with some caveats. Similarly, the American Journal of Political Science found that women lawmakers are more effective in pushing bills through committees—but only if they’re in the minority party. Once their party takes control of the House, their advantage in civility and consensus building against men disappears. The theory supposes that unlike male legislators, women often refuse to grandstand and stall the legislative process when they’re in the minority.

One instance of particular challenge for women’s opportunity to lead in the civil discourse space is the lack of opportunity they have to lead. In 2017, women still comprise about 24% of the legislature and the total number of women in legislative leadership is just 68, about 18% of all leaders.

Another challenge we see from the recent news cycle related to civility was Senator Kamala Harris’ “Courage not Courtesy” movement. While women don’t want to advocate to be uncivil, it is important for women to not be reminded “their place” in society through reprimands and dis-empowering statements.

Women continue to lead with civility and NFWL is dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership positions, thereby increasing the civility in all legislatures and, more generally, in our current political climate.