A recent study about the state of women in U.S. Congress has revealed that, despite a culture of toxic masculinity, and despite being heavily outnumbered by their male counterparts, women in the House and the Senate remain optimistic and empowered in their roles.
The study, conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics, the Eagleton Institute of Politics, and Political Parity, surveyed 83 out of the 108 female members of the 114th Congress: representatives, Senators and delegates who were in Congress during the 2015-16 session.
The survey was completed before the election of President Donald Trump, but, as the study says, the 114th Congress was “widely perceived to be characterized by sharp partisan divisions and legislative gridlock” ― and since Trump’s presidency began, this deep division and partisanship has continued. (See the below photo of a room full of men discussing women’s health care for an example.)
Regardless, women in Congress have persisted.
According to the study, “women on both sides of the aisle in the 114th Congress very much believe that their presence and their voices mattered, and they provided considerable evidence of achievements despite the overall environment of gridlock and party polarization in which they operated.”
Below are the study’s major takeaways:
Women in Congress believe they are less ego-based and more “results-oriented” than their male colleagues.
As the study’s author’s wrote, “many [women surveyed] contend that women are more results-oriented, more likely to emphasize achievement over ego, and more concerned with achieving policy outcomes rather than receiving publicity or credit.”
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mi.), said that she thinks women take a more results-oriented approach to their jobs as public servants, rather than seeking credit and attention.
“I think we are much more focused on solving problems and getting things done and less focused on the trappings of power, our name on a bill, all of the ego trappings with the job,” she said in the study.
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tn.) agreed. “Guys have a tendency to seek a win, and we seek a win-win to get to a solution.”
Past research has shown that women in the Senate are, in fact, more productive than their male counterparts when it comes to trying to change or make laws. A 2015 analysis found that the average female Senator submitted 26 more bills than her male counterpart over a six-year timeframe.
Women are more likely to reach across party lines ― and thus accomplish more.
Even though there were only 28 Republican women in the 114th Congress ― six women Senators and 22 representatives ― many of the interviewed women said that they make it a priority to work across party lines to get the most done.
“I think people assume that Republicans are always going to work against Democrats and Democrats are always going to work against Republicans, but sometimes I’m disagreeing with members of my own party,” Rep. Kristi Noem (R- S.D.) said. “Sometimes I’m building coalitions with Democrats that think more like I do on a certain policy than maybe members of my own conference... You can’t really be in this job and be effective if you aren’t bold enough to have those conversations.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.) told the researchers that she believes that women have more “harmonious” relationships across party lines than men do.
“We have a lot of institutions and informal groups where we interact, Democratic women with Republican women,” she said. “I would say that the women in the House interact in more favorable, more harmonious ways than our male counterparts or opposing [men]…of different parties.”
Some women in Congress believe the gender-based challenges of being elected are greater than those once elected ― but almost all acknowledge sexist double standards.
“Being here in Congress is not as hard as it was to get here,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mi.). Of course, women are held to difference standards during an election campaign (just ask Hillary Clinton and countless other women at the local level).
But many women featured in the study also discussed how these double standards manifest after election day. They are often valued for their “style over substance” and, outdated gender roles often follow them into D.C.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wi.) said that women are still judged too harshly by their appearance. “[People] are still are more judgmental about women’s appearance than male appearance, [and these comments] are still…in abundant supply,” she said.
Women in Congress say they are are also plagued by the idea that they need to “have it all.”
“Sometimes I bring my kids to events because it’s an event that I have to go to ... so I’ve had comments. People will say to me, ‘Oh we didn’t vote for you to be a babysitter.’ Where I don’t sense the same thing that is said to men,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.).
Republican Rep. Blackburn acknowledged that those outdated gender roles may be especially present in her party.
“I think it should be noted that conservative men do not— that some conservative men do not view women as full and equal partners in the workplace,” she said. “And I know for some men, that is never going to change. So I don’t look at it and say it is a stumbling block. I recognize it and I do my part to change their attitude every day by doing a very good job of what is put in front of me to do.”
Women in Congress are, above all else, optimistic about women’s place in politics ― and want to make sure more women join them.
The election of President Trump has inspired thousands of women to run for office, and the women who have paved the way are ready to support those women in their campaigns.
“We have...an opportunity to try to be role models for women and men in our states and in the country and [to] try and change the mindset about women and girls’ thinking about running for office,” said Rep. Susan Brooks (R-In.).
Many of the women in the 114th Congress also acknowledged the importance of representation for so many young people across the country.
Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Oh.) said that, as a black woman, she knows her role is bigger than just herself.
“It makes a difference when little African-American girls can dream that they, too, can serve in Congress,” she said. “I never thought as a little girl that I would be sitting in the United States Congress...and so now to be able to sit there and vote on the most important issues that are before us and that run this country, and to go back home and sit in the classroom or to sit in the neighborhood center and be able to honestly say, ’Somebody in this room — lots of you — can do this and yet do greater things.’”
Head over to Center for American Women and Politics to see the whole study.