In Congress, women outdeliver men

U. CHICAGO (US) — Women in the U.S. Congress deliver more federal projects to their home districts and sponsor more legislation than their male counterparts, a new study shows.

Researchers argue that because women face difficult odds in reaching Congress, the ones who succeed are more capable on average than their male colleagues.

In what they dub “the Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect,” researchers at the University of Chicago relate this “sex–based selection” to the experience of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball. It is not surprising that Robinson is widely considered to be one of the best players in the sport’s history, argue the authors, because he had to be the best in order to overcome the racial discrimination of the time.

Similarly, women running for Congress must be more motivated and more highly qualified than their male counterparts to win a seat. In fact, the worse the voter discrimination against women, the better women from those districts fare in Congress. The researchers found that congresswomen elected in more conservative districts, where they may face greater sex–based selection, achieve even larger advantages in spending than the average congresswomen.

“We emphasize that we are not arguing that women have more innate political talent than men, nor do we claim that all female candidates outperform their male counterparts,” says Christopher Berry, assistant professor of public policy.

Berry points out that widows who enter Congress to fill their deceased husbands’ seats do not outperform congressmen, possibly because they bypassed the sex–based selection of elections.

“Our theory simply identifies a connection between the economics of discrimination and models of political agency: When sex discrimination is present among voters, women must be better than their male counterparts to be elected,” Berry says.

The research—accepted for publication at the American Journal of Political Science—comes as the 112th Congress is sworn in this month with 89 women, the first decline in female representation since 1978.

Measuring up
Since there is no direct way to measure legislator capability, the researchers measured performance in two ways. First, using Federal Assistance Award Data, a comprehensive compilation of federal domestic spending programs, the authors examined data from 1984 to 2004 showing the amount of federal program dollars that members of Congress brought to their home districts. The analysis encompassed discretionary spending, including most earmarks, but not entitlement programs or defense spending and other procurement programs.

Berry and his former student Sarah Anzia, who is now a doctoral student at Stanford University, found that congresswomen on average obtain 9 percent more in federal discretionary programs for their home districts—about $49 million per year—than congressmen, even when taking into account variables such as party affiliation, majority party status, seniority, electoral vulnerability, ideology, committee assignments, and district traits.

The authors also compared changes over time in spending within districts, to gauge how much a given district received when represented by a woman rather than a man. This method ensured that the estimated advantage for females was not simply a result of the types of districts they represent.

Second, the researchers examined the policymaking activities of women and men in Congress. They found that women sponsor and co–sponsor significantly more bills than men, and that bills sponsored by women get more co–sponsorship support from their colleagues.

More generally, congresswomen score higher on various statistical measures of “network centrality,” meaning that they have stronger networks of collaboration than their male counterparts.

“Two fundamental jobs of congressional representatives are constituency service, which includes bringing home federal projects as well as other direct work with constituents, and legislating, which means writing bills and shepherding them through the lawmaking process,” says Berry. “The evidence shows that the women in Congress outperform the men on both levels.”

More news from the University of Chicago: http://news.uchicago.edu/

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