There are currently more women serving in Congress than at any other time in history. This undoubtedly is a benefit for the institution, which for most of its history has been a boy’s club. And the change has had immediate, major impact: Consider the bipartisan coalition of female House members who banded together to stop an abortion bill, over a measure that would require women to report rape to authorities.
Aside from the issue of equal representation, there’s a deeper reason why women are good for governance. Women, on a psychological level, are better at engaging in political discussion with those they disagree with. They are less susceptible to the partisan biases that often blind politicians.
Make no mistake, everyone is susceptible to partisan bias—it’s baked into our DNA. What Patrick R. Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover are concluding in their new study published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, is that the effects of this bias are less pronounced in women.
Conover and Miller recruited 460 college-aged participants (230 men, 230 women, slightly more Democrats than Republicans), and had them read editorials purportedly written by Republican Mitch McConnell or Democrat Harry Reid. The test: whether partisans would give the editorial written by the opposing party any consideration, as measured by time spent reading, and whether the partisan gave any credit to the argument. The overall result was not surprising: When Democrats read the Reid editorial, they’d spend more time with it and they liked it more than the McConnell one. The same went for Republicans and McConnell. The text of the editorial was the same in each condition.
But then Conover and Miller broke the results down by gender.
“Women were certainly not immune to the biasing effect,” they concluded. “But they demonstrated significantly less rejection of the outparty argument than men.” They spent more time reading the argument, evaluated it less harshly, and were more willing to support the position. Summing up: They were more willing to consider the opposing side. Among men and women most sensitive to political discussion, men rated the opposing party’s editorial 2.4 points worse on a 36-point scale.
But why are women better listeners?
Here’s how partisan bias usually works. It’s kind of a “path-to-the-darkside” progression: Our party identities get tied with our personal identities. When there’s an attack on our party, we take it as an attack on ourselves. When we’re attacked, we get anxious. When we’re anxious, we’re defensive. When we are defensive, there’s a greater incentive to protect the party than, let’s say, accept troubling facts. What Miller and Conover conclude is that women have less anxiety about threats to their parties. Being less anxious means being less defensive, which results in better political dialog.
You don’t need a scientific study to know that women make for good political communicators. It was women, after all, who ended the shutdown stalemate in October 2013. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, fed up with lack of movement to reopen the government, recruited a bipartisan group to get negotiations going again, including fellow female Republican Lisa Murkowski. “I probably will have retribution in my state,” Murkowski told The New York Times of the negotiations with Democrats. “That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all.” Clearly, she wasn’t showing anxiety. She was leading the way.
On a national survey included in the study, women indicated less anxiety at the prospect of interacting with political opponents. Whereas with men, their partisan identity predicted their levels of anxiety, women stayed on an even keel. “Women were significantly less anxious than men at all levels of partisan identity [i.e. how political you are],” the paper finds. And those most anxious about political conflict are the least likely to be open to interacting with opponents. “More anxious partisans engaged in less cross-party political discussion.” Anxiety aside, men overall, reported less willingness to listen, a scientific conclusion that shouldn’t surprise [insert marriage joke here].