How women work harder to stay in Congress

 Image source:  Politico
Image source: Politico

By Jeffrey Lazarus

Almost ten years ago, my colleague Amy Steigerwalt and I were writing on congressional earmarks when we noticed an interesting trend: in the years we examined, four of the five most prolific earmarkers in the Senate were women. This finding was quite a surprise, since there were only 13 women in the Senate at the time. We decided to do some more investigating, and sure enough, as a group, female members of Congress secured more money for their states and districts than the men did. 

We then began to investigate whether male and female members of Congress interact with constituents differently from one another in other areas as well. We find that across a range of more than a dozen different interactions – including pork barrel spending, trips to the district, placing staff in the district, and volume of franked mail – as a group women simply do all of them more. The overall message was clear: female members are more closely engaged with their constituents than males are, at virtually every level. 

The more we thought about this finding, the more it made sense. After all, as shown by a host of previous studies, female candidates face a number of obstacles when running for office that men do not. Women do not receive as much media attention, and the media attention they do get is less substantive in nature. Women face better-funded and higher-quality opponents than men. They face gender stereotypes held by voters and other political actors that men do not have to worry about. And even when women overcome these obstacles and get elected, there are a number of socialization factors which combine to induce many female office holders to believe – consciously or unconsciously – that their reelection campaign will be tougher than average.

We thus developed the concept of “gendered vulnerability:” in both perception and reality, female officeholders are more vulnerable to losing reelection than men. The patterns that Amy and I discovered – increased pork barrel spending, extra visits to the district, all of it – is a response to the fact that women have to, or at the very least, believe they have to, work harder to stay in office than men do. Women’s extra attention to constituents is the form that additional work takes.

Gendered vulnerability also has consequences that are more substantively important. With respect to policy, female members hew closer than males to what their constituents want. Women are more likely to write and introduce bills in the policy areas their voters most care about; and they are also more likely to sit on committees reflecting these district concerns and needs. Perhaps most important, when members of Congress vote on bills and other matters, women stick closer to what their constituents want than men do. Amy and I also find that this increased substantive representation exists across the panoply of issues areas Congress considers and is not just limited to “women’s issues.” In other words, the result of gendered vulnerability is that female members better substantively represent all of their constituents’ interests.

Does this make women better overall representatives than men? In some ways yes, and in other ways no.  If you are a voter, having your member pay more attention to you – write more letters, visit more often, etc., — is always a good thing. And women’s tendency to reflect their voters’ policy preferences certainly makes them better delegates. But there are potential costs: Some female members spend so much time working on their voters’ issues that they have a hard time branching out and working on things they might care more about. Spending so much time focused on placating voters might also prevent women from achieving goals situated within Congress, such as passing broad national legislation, or moving up the leadership ladder. And even voters might not always be pleased – what if voters clamor for a policy or action which their member knows in the long run won’t turn out well? Female Congress members will have a harder time resisting their voters’ preferences here, too. 

Our research thus both answers some important questions and raises others. First and foremost, we find evidence that gender differences exist across the multitude of activities members of Congress engage in: female members attend more to constituent demands and better represent their constituents’ interests. Due to their more treacherous reelection landscape, women’s gendered vulnerability results in them prioritizing their constituents in a manner that is noticeably distinct from their male counterparts. However, our research raises important questions about what we want out of our representatives (do we send them to Washington to act as delegates or trustees?) as well as the policy implications of female members’ constituent-skewed allocation of their time. Even as women increasingly run and win elected offices, the perception of gendered vulnerability across female legislators, old and young, in safe and unsafe seats, remains strong and suggests we will have to continue to grapple with both the benefits and costs for years to come.

Jeffrey Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.  Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office will be available from Michigan University Press on March 4, 2018.