Girl Power: What Women's Leadership Means for America

When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes for the first time five days after the shooting in Tucson, she saw her husband to her right and three strong women at her left. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), and Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-FL) had been alternating holding Giffords' hand when she showed the first of many hopeful signs of recovery. They were at her side as friends and as women bound by the common experience of elected office.

"We witnessed almost a miracle," Pelosi said. "We saw the power of prayer, the power of the effect of the excellence of her medical care and we saw a little girl power too... "

The Tucson tragedy has caused us as a nation to reflect on civility, the wonders of modern medicine, and the power of our collective prayers. But what about "girl power"? What does women's leadership mean for our country?

Successful women candidates across parties share certain qualities -- qualities embodied by Congresswoman Giffords herself in many ways. My foundation's research shows that women candidates must show a winning combination of competence, clarity, efficiency, and decisiveness. They must show poise and establish credibility with voters by taking on powerful interests and winning. These women also show tenacity, working for change even when it means putting themselves on the line.

Women candidates who win bring these qualities to public life. Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, is herself credited with "knocking on every Senator's door" to secure the passage of a bill to cover health care costs for 9/11 first responders and doggedly working to end the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. The Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D-MI), said of Gillibrand's work to end "don't ask, don't tell," "She's been a bird dog on this... She is not shy about her views, and pressing her views and talking to anybody and everybody, on the floor and not on the floor, and in office visits, and in the hallways."

Gillibrand is not alone. Overall, women in Congress sponsor more bills and obtain more co-sponsorship support than their male colleagues -- they also bring home more money for their districts. In fact, my foundation's research shows higher favorability ratings for women governors than their male counterparts on a wide range of leadership qualities: from managing a crisis, to solving problems, to "getting things done."

Still, focus group research shows that women candidates struggle to prove toughness while maintaining likeability. During her presidential campaign Hillary Clinton was criticized for not being likeable even in the face of convincing evidence of her capability as a leader. This in contrast to Sarah Palin whose popular appeal increasingly gave way to questions of her competence. It's rare for the public to view women in politics as both likeable and competent.

The results of the 2008 and 2010 elections revealed that we are still a long way from the "Year of the Woman." For the first time since 1978, women's representation has declined. Out of the 535 seats in Congress, only 90 are held by women; a mere six out of 50 state governors are women -- calling into question whether voters value the qualities that women bring to elected leadership. But a post-election nationwide poll of "Obama drop-off voters" (women who voted for Obama but then did not vote for Democratic candidates in 2010) showed that voters had a clear preference for candidates willing to work across party lines to get things done and who "care about the average person."

Both, of course, are qualities more visible in women elected leaders. Perhaps former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said it best: "If you want something said, ask a man... if you want something done, ask a woman."