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Presentation sheds light on women in Congress

| Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The 116th Congress has the most women of any U.S. Congress: less than 25%. Record numbers of women were elected to Congress in 2018, yet the U.S. ranks 79th worldwide in female representation in a parliamentary body. These facts opened a presentation from Kathryn Pearson, the speaker hosted by the Constitutional Studies Department in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall on Tuesday.

Pearson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, began with some stereotypes about congresswomen: they are more cooperative but also more timid, making them less inclined to take the lead in Congress but more likely to cross party lines in voting. Pearson’s research showed that women and men not only win Congressional races at about the same rate, but there is no difference in their success rates at the primary level. Women who run also have more experience than men and secure more money fundraising than men, according to Pearson’s statistics.

“For the most part, the results of elections through 2016 suggest that the women who do run for Congress are more experienced, strategic, more prepared and work harder to raise money to achieve gender-neutral results,” she said.

Pearson highlighted two key traits of Congress that might explain why: the need for women to prove themselves to a body made up of mostly men, and the advantages that come with being fiercely loyal in today’s government.

“When I think about gender dynamics inside of Congress, there’s two forces that are really important in explaining gender differences in legislative behavior,” she said. “The first is the fact that serving in a male-dominated institution gives Congresswomen extra incentives to prove their credentials to their colleagues and constituents. Women introduce more bills than men. Women in Congress … give more speeches on the House floor.”

Pearson said women in Congress are also more effective at bringing appropriations back to their districts in the form of federal spending.

“The second is the fact that the current Congress has been very polarized along partisan lines,” Pearson said. ”We’re seeing two parties that behave as competitive teams. [Party leaders] not only use their power to control the agenda, but they also have the power to reward loyalty.”

Pearson analyzed more than just voting record in determining that loyalty. She tracked discharge petition signatures, a function of the House of Representatives that requires some representatives to cross party lines in order to get a bill out of committee and onto the floor. She also looked at analyses of one-minute speeches in the House and at fundraising loyalty. On the whole, she said, her results were conclusive.

“Congresswomen have extra incentives [to support their party] and their strategic responses are shaped by significant gender dynamics … stereotypes about Congresswomen and their behavior, a legacy of bipartisan cooperation among Congresswomen, institutional and party rules and differences in the type of districts where women run and win,” she said.

The numbers and trends presented on Tuesday focus on the political realities of a very turbulent time in government. More analytics on the nature of this government can help us understand it, according to Pearson.

“My research really speaks to a broader need of the understanding of the effects of Congressional polarization in the contemporary era,“ she said.

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