More women than ever before will be sworn into Congress this January, but some worry the gains might not be enough to dramatically reshape policies that affect women. Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University Tali Mendelberg told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that people may be focusing too much on the number of women and not enough on making sure women’s perspectives and voices are heard.
Twenty women will be a part of the Senate, which is a record. “I think there are reasons to celebrate this landmark number, but our research suggests that 20 out of 100 is just not going to be enough to really make up women’s full representation because when we conducted our study, which was based on 94 decision-making groups, we found that at 20 percent, women just were not able to speak up,” Mendelberg said. “They spoke at 60 percent of the time that men spoke. And they were not able to articulate the preferences that we knew ahead of time.”
One of the reasons for the inconsistencies between men and women could be social pressures. “Studies have suggested over a long period of time that women are socialized to have less confidence in their abilities,” Mendelberg said. “And that is true of women at all levels of ability and even ambitious women who go into politics tend to have just less — relative to comparable men — less sense that they should be speaking up and they should be articulating their particular interests and preferences.”
Mendelberg said even seemingly confident women like Madeleine Albright struggled. “She talks about how when she first started attending meetings, primarily surrounded by men, it took her a while to kind of figure out that she did have something to contribute to the conversation,” Mendelberg explained. “And sometimes she would hear a man saying the same thing she was thinking about and just not quite getting around to articulate. It was a process even for someone like Madeleine Albright.”
Research suggests women have a slight preference for taking care of groups that need help, such as children, families, single mothers, people who have low incomes, those who are disabled and sick, according to Mendelberg.
“Our concern is if women do not speak up as much as men do, and if they get cut off or rudely interrupted, which is another pattern that we found in these 20 percent female groups, which has also been found in Senate testimony,” Mendelberg said. “So if women are cut off more than men are, if they don’t speak as much as men do, then the problem is that this voice of care for the vulnerable segments in society is going to be under represented.”
Mendelberg said once women recognize that they are not speaking up as often as their male counterparts, they can begin to break the pattern.
“Our research also finds that these problems with women’s representation tend to come about when there’s majority rule. So we’ve articulated a number of reforms or procedures that groups can adopt. For example if a group uses consensus decision-making, these problems with women’s representation tend to disappear or dissipate at least,” Mendelberg said. “So we think that this is a hopeful message that women can do something here. And also the groups can use decision-making procedures and more inclusive discussion procedures.”
Teaching girls at a young age to speak up for themselves is another way to help solve the problem, according to Mendelberg. “I think that parents and teachers can empower girls at a young age,” she said. “In classroom settings, in voluntary organizations, extracurricular clubs, we have a great opportunity to essentially have a school for democracy for women as well as men and really teach women to speak up for themselves.”