No matter your take on the debate over the shutdown and the debt ceiling, there’s one irrefutable fact: All of the major players in the negotiations are men. On the right, you’ve got Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA). On the left, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Barack Obama (D) himself.
It’s cringe-worthy, on one hand, since one of the sticking points stopping Republicans from passing a funding bill has been the women’s reproductive health measures included in Obamacare. But on a deeper level, it also explains why the game of chicken happening over the nation’s economy is playing out the way it is.
Stubbornness, narcissism, overconfidence — these are traits that have been cultivated in male leaders. That’s not an independent analysis; studies show that men like to take a lot of risks while women are more willing to concede in negotiations. Women also tend to make governments less corrupt (probably because they live outside of the cultural norms that foster corruption) and corporate boards more profitable. Not to mention they focus on a different set of policy priorities (PDF) when they make it into elected office. Men, meanwhile, score lower on emotional intelligence tests — a measure of humility.
Now, these traits aren’t some piece of evolutionary biology; they’re ingrained by a society that has left women out for millennia. And they’re not always a good thing. That same phenomenon that makes women more conciliatory in negotiation is what means sometimes women aren’t demanding higher salaries or starting their own businesses (PDF) as much. But don’t blame women for it; they’re also treated differently if they push hard or express anger in the workplace, so they might shy away from confrontation even if it’s not their natural instinct.
Still, no matter how these instincts arose, a female voice or two could be exactly what we need in the current shutdown debate.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) thinks so. Outside of her day job on Capitol Hill, she created a group called Off The Sidelines that aims to get more women into politics. “We tend to be more results-oriented and less concerned with getting the credit,” Gillibrand told the New York Times in 2011. “The female approach is more conciliatory and less combative. We tend to use a more civil tone.”
That echoes a similar argument made by Barnard College President Debora Spar back during the financial crisis of 2008. Spar asked whether having more women on Wall Street might have helped prevent the Great Recession, and pointed to a study (PDF) that found women are less inclined to bet their pay on their own performance.
“One of the ideas that’s been floating around since the meltdown is that women in particular may approach risk differently than men,” Spar told NPR at the time. “They may, in the aggregate, because obviously individuals are all different, but in the aggregate, women tend to be more averse to risk than men. And insofar as a great chunk of this meltdown was the result of people, men, having taken on way too much risk, we could very well have gotten a different outcome had there been more women’s voices in these rooms at critical points in time.”
It’s worth noting there are women who could be involved in this debate: former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would have been had Republicans not retaken the House back in 2010, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) chairs the House Republican Conference, but was conspicuously not included in the Republicans’ negotiation conferees.
But not worrying so much about blame or credit — and taking a step back from the extreme risk of a shutdown and debt ceiling breach — could be key for Speaker Boehner, who at this point seems to be going against the interests of the mainstream of his party because he doesn’t want to lose his speakership or look weak. In fact, no one has summed up the obstinate mentality at the men of the helm of this shutdown more than Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), who last week told reporters, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”