Gender Smarts Break Congressional Deadlock

The next time we find ourselves teetering on the default cliff--and given this month's historic precedent, we surely will revisit it -- let it be remembered who dragged us back from the brink: a bipartisan caucus of courageous women.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) led the effort by crafting a three-point-plan she felt both parties could embrace. Inspired by her pragmatism, two female colleagues -- Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) -- joined her. And then, heedless of threats of retribution from Tea Partiers in their home states and hardliners in their own party, these three Republicans enlisted the cooperation of Barbara Mikulski (D Maryland) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to frame out the Senate deal that ultimately broke the budget impasse and averted a disastrous default.

Unlocking gridlock in government, it turns out, depends on precisely the mechanism that unlocks competitive strength in the private sector: a diverse team (laden with gender smarts and cultural fluency) managed by leaders whose aggregate of experience motivates them to manage inclusively. Our work on innovation shows that companies with a significant number of women and other minorities in decision-making roles, and a leadership culture that prizes the different perspectives and toolkits these workers bring, out-perform companies lacking such "two-dimensional" diversity. Employees at these companies are 70 percent more likely to report their firm has captured a new market in the last year, and 45 percent more likely to report they've grown market share.

But two-dimensional diversity doesn't just drive market growth. Looking at what these brave women did to avert calamity, we see 2D diversity clearly at work. The Fab Five leveraged not only their inherent differences (less testosterone, an instinct for consensus, an appetite for social good over personal gain) but also inclusive leadership tendencies that our research shows are highly correlated with success: they listened to the other side, solicited feedback and acted on it, and sought and won the buy-in of other key leaders. For instance, they remained highly attuned to the wishes of their constituents, who said they wanted their elected representatives to put aside partisanship to pass a budget. They listened to the voices (drowned out by the likes of Senator Ted Cruz) who pleaded not to be taken hostage by the hardliners. Certainly they approached the default crisis differently than their male peers, who locked horns in a winner-take-all turf contest that threatened to destroy the herd. Ultimately, they did what women seem to do best: they compromised their own career goals in order to broker a deal that would serve the greater good.

In short, two-dimensional diversity in Congress -- as in the Fortune 500 companies that make up our Task Force -- drives better outcomes.

And that realization, among the many lessons to be drawn from this debacle, must inform our electoral process going forward. Next time we have a chance to recalibrate the balance of power in Washington, let's consider factors other than political party in choosing our candidates. Let's remember, as Mitt Romney's backers will never forget, that as a pluralist nation, our representative government should represent that plurality. Variations in generation ensure a variety of perspectives on what matters; so do variations in ethnicity. Breadth of education matters in our elected officials; so does a broader socioeconomic experience. Gender certainly brings important sensibilities to problem-solving; so might sexual orientation. Our leaders should embody difference, that they might feel our pain; they should embrace difference, so they can utilize all the toolkits at their disposal to solve the ever-more-wicked problems confronting us as a nation and a species. It's when our leaders are neither diverse nor inclusive that partisanship -- and the groupthink it breeds -- paralyzes our democratic process. Only when government looks and works like our most innovative private-sector companies, in fact, can it harness the full potential of its inherently diverse constituents.

The world looks to us to solve its problems. Let's not forget who it was that led the charge to solve our own.

Co-author: Melinda Marshall, Center for Talent Innovation