Political Animals: Men and Women Who Govern - Gender, Nature, and Nurture: Looking to the Future

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

Political Animals: Men and Women Who Govern
Gender, Nature, and Nurture: Looking to the Future

In the 108th Congress of the United States (serving from 2003 to 2005), 14% of the members of the U.S House of Representatives and 14% of the members of the U.S Senate were women. These statistics were roughly comparable to those from other industrialized countries; women comprised 18% of Great Britain s House of Commons and 17% of its House of Lords, 12% and 13% of France's National Assembly and Senate, and 32% of Germany's Bundestag. The percentage of women legislators was highest in countries with the most liberal attitudes toward gender, such as Denmark (37%), Finland (37%), the Netherlands (33%), Norway (36%), and Sweden (42%) (all 2004 statistics). Political parties in Sweden have gone so far as to declare an informal 40/60 rule, which holds that in nominating candidates for legislative seats, neither sex should receive less than 40% or more than 60% of the nominations, However, even in Sweden, women do not comprise 50% of the legislature.

Why are women less likely than men to occupy elected and appointed government positions? There are a many environmental explanations. Throughout much of the 20th century, women simply did not receive the education or work experience that would prepare them for positions of power. Powerful social pressures shunted women into limited roles. Old boys' networks and outright prejudice excluded women from the corridors of power. Katherine Graham (1997), former owner of the Washington Post, told in her autobiography how, after dinner parties for the political elite of Washington during the 1960s, she was expected to leave the room and go off with the women when the men began to talk politics.

There may also be biological predispositions that feed into the gender gap in politics. Males may be biologically primed to form dominance hierarchies, to compete for status, and to jockey for power. Evolutionary theories propose that sexual selection has led to male status-seeking and power-seeking. Former U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put in bluntly when he stated, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

The biological facts of pregnancy and breastfeeding have caused women, traditionally, to be tied down by child care for extended periods of their lives. Rising to power often entails long periods of time working one's way up in political and government hierarchies, and women have faced, on average, more interruptions in this process. Throughout most of history, women have also had to contend with doubtful electorates who viewed being male as an essential prerequisite for high elective office. However, research evidence suggests that the gender of political candidates' has had less impact on U.S voters' choices in recent years (Dolan, 2004). It is important to recall that women's right to vote is a recent historical achievement.

Women who manage to work their way up in political and governmental organizations may bring a somewhat different style to leadership than men do. Chapter 1 summarized research suggesting that women show more social-emotional, democratic, and transformational styles of leadership, whereas men show more task-oriented and autocratic styles of leadership. Given that political success req uires the ability to negotiate and compromise, the skill to forge consensus among allies and adversaries, and interpersonal perceptiveness, it would seem that in many ways, women are ideally suited to politics.

Old stereotypes have portrayed women as reluctant to exercise power in a tough-minded fashion and as overly subject to hormonal fluctuations. However, female leaders such as Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, and Condoleezza Rice belie such stereotypes. These examples of tough women leaders raise an interesting question in the nature-nurture debate: Is leadership style a function of biological sex, or is it rather a function of power and status? As more women occupy high government positions, will they behave as men traditionally have or will they develop new, distinctively female styles of leadership?

Recent political polls and election results have shown evidence for a "gender gap" in the electorate's political attitudes and voting habits (Norrander, 1999; Studlar, McAllister, & Hayes, 1998; Trevor, 1999). On average, women are more focused on social issues such as child care, education, and health care, whereas men are more focused on power issues such as military preparedness and law and order. Men tend to be more conservative, on average, and women more liberal. Not surprisingly, women's and men's voting choices tend to reflect their differing attitudes (Eagly, Diekman, Schneider, & Kulesa, 2003).

Part of the gender gap in politics seems to flow from the different experiences of women and men in daily life and their different roles. Women are more responsible than men are for child care. They monitor children's day-to-day activities, including educational activities, more than men do. Women are responsible for their families' medical needs more than men are, and when family members—including parents—require care, women are more likely than men to provide it. Working women are more responsible than men are for difficult decisions about child care, and women must face the real-life consequences of unwanted pregnancies much more directly than men do.

All of these examples suggest that although biology may not influence politics in a direct sense, the biological realities of being male and female may have many indirect consequences on the political concerns of men and women. The cascades of consequences that follow from childhood sex segregation and the differing childhood cultures of boys and girls probably affect adult politics as well. For example, boys' competitive, risk-taking participation in hierarchical groups undoubtedly has parallels in the approaches that men take to politics. It is probably no accident that men frequently use sports and military metaphors ("to be a good team player", "to hit a home run", "to do an end run", "to take no hostages") when describing political events.

In contrast, women's earlier experiences in cooperative, verbal negotiating groups may influence their approaches to politics and lead women to display a more democratic, consensus-based style of leadership than men do.