Governance in Heels


By Silvana Koch-Mehrin

99 years ago, the World War I ended and the League of Nations was founded. The first Oreo cookie was designed and the pop-up toaster patented. It’s stuff for the history books.

The latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report shows that it will take another 99 years for the world to achieve gender-equal political representation if we continue at our current pace.

Having only one woman for every four men in parliaments around the world is a clear indication of how ineffective societies are at tapping into the potential talent of more than 50% of the population. There are, of course, important variations: Nordic countries are the most gender equal, and Rwanda is the world champion for female participation in politics. Arab and Gulf countries, stand at the other end of the spectrum.

UN Women estimates that globally, men represent 77% of parliamentarians, 82% of government ministers, 93% of heads of government and 94% of heads of state. And every time a woman reaches the top of an organization or political party, it makes global headlines. Today, one can name all of the current female country leaders in less than 30 seconds. This trend extends across the private sector and in academia – the greater the seniority, the fewer women.


There are many reasons to care about this imbalance – Achieving gender equality in political participation has both intrinsic and instrumental value. Women in political office prioritize efforts to advance rights, promote equality, and leverage opportunity for women and girls. It’s a matter of human rights and it’s a matter of good governance.  The composition of executives and legislatures also affects the quality of laws and influences the extent of their application. Evidence demonstrates that women leaders are more likely to respond to public needs and tend to cooperate across party lines. Historically, this is not the case for men in power.

Unfortunately, a range of barriers – official and unofficial, formal and informal – limit women’s political participation. The Women Political Leaders Global Forum (WPL) conducted a study on ‘The Female Political Career’. Analysing survey responses from 617 politicians – female and male –from 84 countries, the study was designed to understand the non-legal barriers women face in different phases of the political lifecycle.

The findings tell the same old story – one that applies globally. Women politicians tend to start their careers later, have fewer children, spend more time caring for their families, and arrange their lives to have shorter commutes than their male counterparts. Family commitments continue to constitute a major source of concern among women. “Gender equality begins in our homes,” says Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chair of the African Union (2010-2016) and a member of the WPL advisory board. Another said “three Ms stand in the way of women: money, media and men”.

Women and men also have different levels and types of political support networks. On average, female politicians receive fewer private donations than their male counterparts and rely more heavily on party sponsorship. Media portrayal and voter perceptions of ‘a woman’s place’ cast a longer shadow over women’s decision to run for office and to pursue higher positions.  While both men and women express concern about the many pitfalls of political campaigning, females often experience additional worry around stereotypical discrimination, the difficulty of fundraising, negative advertising, the loss of privacy and not being taken as a serious candidate. This can only change when more women are represented in politics and are seen as equal representatives to their male counterparts.

So what can be done to address these problems? In politics, networks are key. To accelerate their political careers, women need communication, connection and community. WPL aims to increase both the number and the influence of women in political leadership positions, optimising the power of communication and connection to build new communities of knowledge for women political leaders everywhere. Progress happens by convening women political leaders who have the drive and the influence to create positive change.

And this is not just about women. In a flagship campaign, WPL asked male presidents and prime ministers to complete the sentence “We need more women as political leaders because …”. Among the more than 70 respondents, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau explained: “When women engage in the political process, societies thrive and prosper.”

Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile (2014-2018), rightly puts it: “When one woman is a leader, it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies.”

So much has been accomplished in the last 99 years and so much more can be accomplished in the years ahead. But if we are to achieve our ambitious goals and see truly transformative change, we must make a more concerted effort to strengthen women’s political participation at all levels because a woman’s place is in politics.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, is the President of the Women Political Leaders Global Forum, and had this published at the Political Leaders Global Forum, 2018.

In October 25, 2018, the Ethiopian parliament elected its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. Though the role is largely ceremonial, it holds symbolic importance for women across the country and the continent, as Zewde will be the only female head of state in Africa. In her opening speech, she emphasized the importance of equality, telling MPs that if they thought she was talking too much about women,  she had only just begun.

Her election comes on the heels of another important step forward for Ethiopia, and neighboring Rwanda, who joined the meager ranks of countries with ministerial gender parity. In a cabinet reshuffle last week, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed ten female ministers, comprising half of the all cabinet posts. Days later, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame announced that Rwanda’s new cabinet would also be gender-balanced.

According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, fewer than ten countries have reached parity at the cabinet level. The global average for female government ministers is 18.3 percent, and more than a dozen countries have no women cabinet members at all. Ethiopia and Rwanda are part of a small club, and further unique for granting women substantial portfolios. Both named women to key ministerial posts; Ethiopia’s new minsters of defense and peace, and Rwanda’s ministers of trade and economic planning, are women. Of the female ministers in office worldwide, the vast majority hold posts that oversee social issues. In 2017, women were most likely to be ministers of environment (108), social affairs (102), family/children/youth (98), women’s affairs (68), education (67), and culture (65). Far fewer women served as ministers for justice (38), finance (19), and a mere fifteen countries—including Ethiopia—have a woman at the helm of the defense ministry.

In their announcements of the new appointments, both Prime Minister Abiy and President Kagame remarked that they believed women would improve the effectiveness of the cabinet. Abiy told lawmakers that women would help battle corruption and bring accountability to the government. Kagame noted to judicial officials that “a higher number of women in decision-making roles have led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes.”

To a certain extent, research bears this out. Women’s political participation is correlated with a number of gains that are particularly important for post-conflict countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda. A report from CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy program finds that, over a number of metrics, greater women’s participation in peace and security processes leads to more stability. Further studies find higher levels of women’s representation in government leads to a longer duration of peace, and lower likelihood of civil war relapse. Greater numbers of women in cabinet level posts correlates with friendlier working environments for women, and women’s political participation encourages confidence in democratic institutions and is linked with lower levels of extralegal killing, torture, disappearances and other forms of state abuse.

There are important caveats to these findings. Historically, the appointment of women to high-ranking posts has sometimes been instrumentalized for political ends, and several studies acknowledge that the transformative potential of women’s political representation is hindered when grassroots women’s activism is smothered. The Rwandan case in particular is evidence that even when women have high levels of descriptive representation, without an autonomous civil society, gains do not necessarily trickle down.

Nevertheless, this recent news represents a welcome step forward. In addition to Ethiopia and Rwanda’s history-making cabinet line-ups, Mali’s president announced last month a new cabinet that is 30 percent female, including in key posts like the minister of foreign affairs. Women in ministerial roles are slowly changing the face of African politics. Their presence is a necessary—if not sufficient—element to achieving long-lasting equality and stability.

Rebecca Turkington is the assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Donah Mbabazi

Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind in the global economy. Imagine if you have a team and you don’t let half the team play, that’s stupid! That makes no sense.– Barack Obama, 44th President of U.S.A on his maiden visit to Kenya in 2015.


For a very long time, women were consigned to the back, especially when it came to key issues, such as decision-making, and this led to infamous narratives like ‘women belong in the kitchen’, a statement that will drive any feminist nutty trying to explain just how wrong that is. 

There has been progress towards the equal representation of men and women in decision-making in the past ten years. According to statistics from UN Women, the percentage of women in parliament has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. As of January 2017, 10 women were serving as Head of State and nine were serving as Head of Government.

Rwanda has, for over a decade, been topping the global list of countries with the most female political parliamentarians. That’s mainly due to the country’s legally set quotas, with the Constitution stipulating that at least thirty per cent (30%) of Deputies in the Lower House of Parliament must be women.

Women in Saudi Arabia voted for the very first time in 2015 and were even allowed to run for public office. So, are women better off staying home to cook and knit? Can they make decisions on what is right for their home, or on a bigger scale, nation?

The latter is evident, with the past couple of strides serving as defining moments for women in the political sphere, with more of them stepping up and assuming key leadership positions.

From Rwanda’s Louise Mushikiwabo serving as the Secretary-General of Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, to Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia’s first female president, to Ilhan Omar, the first Somali American elected to the United States Congress.

What does this mean for the gender equality drive?

Olive Uwamariya, a woman activist, says women shining in big political roles means society is finally accepting that the world cannot be governed by men only.

She emphasises that women’s empowerment cannot be achieved if women are not seated at the table where decisions are made.

“When there are more women in decision making positions, it means we are likely to have laws and policies that benefit women, children and families because women understand the issues families and children face. These policies are also likely to have a positive impact on their lives,” Uwamariya says.

Political participation and representation is also a right, it is not a favour, the woman activist highlights.

“Women make up half of the population so it’s only logical to have them in leadership,” she says.

Amina Umuhoza, a feminist, says a woman assuming a top position in politics is proof that those who thought that women only deserved to be in the kitchen cooking were completely wrong, because women are exceeding expectations, and that is just the beginning.

There are plenty of things that kept women behind, such as gender-based violence and the different cultural stereotypes, Umuhoza points out.

“It is this that stopped our mothers and sisters from dreaming beyond getting married and raising kids. This mentality killed plenty of passion, potential politicians, innovators and change makers,” she says.

The proud feminist is, however, keen on how the world is yet to change, thanks to the evolving traditions that women are happily embracing.

“Things have now changed, women know their rights and they are able to fight for them, this is why we are reaping the fruits. Imagine what an inspiration these women are going to be for the young girls, they are going to grow up watching what their mothers at the forefront are doing,” Umuhoza says.

A man’s view

Iréné Mizero, Chairman and CEO at Mizero Care Organisation, is not a huge supporter of feminism, however, he believes that when it comes to women and leadership, society can always hope for the best because of the natural abilities women possess.

“Women have this natural thing for transparency and persistence; these two qualities are relevant when it comes to contributing to the changes we want to see in society,” Mizero says.

He adds, “Having top female leaders is a great moment for the world to test its innovations and creativity towards solving the problems that are existing in society. We look forward to testing those remedies that women have on the tray, and there is nothing to fear because Rwanda is proof of the positive changes that women have built.”

Mizero goes on to applaud the Rwandan and Ethiopian Governments for holding the flag high when it comes to women political representation, saying that this means that doors are open for women and that there is a significant change in societal attitudes, thinking and rules of engagement between women and men.

“When women are at the forefront in key decision making positions, it increases innovative solutions to governance and helps to tackle problems that women face, such as sexual harassment and gender-based violence,” he notes.

“Women leaders are capable of bringing the change society wants. The world should replicate Rwanda and Ethiopia’s approach because it is proving to be successful,” Mizero says.

Why a woman has a place in politics

Studies show higher numbers of women in parliament generally contribute to stronger attention to women’s issues. Women’s political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. It facilitates women’s direct engagement in public decision-making and is a means of ensuring better accountability to women. When more women hold top positions in politics, everyone benefits.

Bertin Ganza Kanamugire, a gender activist, says the changing face of society is enabling women to acknowledge their ability and the full transformation of women’s capacity.

Having women in these top positions gives them value and helps them to unveil their potential, Kanamugire says, noting that it was the wrong beliefs and fixed mind-set that society had on women that held them back.

With women in higher political positions, Kanamugire says other women are well represented and the challenges they face can be advocated for.

“When women challenge themselves by assuming top political roles, it helps them realise that they can also do what they never thought they would. Men, on the other hand, realise that women are no lower than them,” Kanamugire says.

An article published on the website of Women Deliver, a global advocate that champions gender equality, shows that achieving gender equality in political participation has both intrinsic and instrumental value.

Women in political office prioritise efforts to advance rights, promote equality, and leverage opportunity for women and girls. It’s a matter of human rights and it’s a matter of good governance, the article reads.

It goes on to explain that the composition of executives and legislatures also affects the quality of laws and influences the extent of their application. Evidence demonstrates that women leaders are more likely to respond to public needs and tend to cooperate across party lines. Historically, this is not the case for men in power.

“To accelerate their political careers, women need communication, connection and community. There is need to increase both the number and the influence of women in political leadership positions, optimising the power of communication and connection to build new communities of knowledge for women political leaders everywhere. Progress happens by convening women political leaders who have the drive and the influence to create positive change,” the article reads.

Adapted from Rwanda’s Leading Daily, The New Times.

Some of our readers will not be thrilled with this column, but facts are facts and nothing that I am writing is a surprise to people who follow politics closely. There is a political revolution going on all over America and the movement is being led by women. This has little to do with the ‘’Me Too Movement’’. It’s more about the fact that a lot of women don’t like what men have done to the American political system.

Image Credit; Nancy Pelosi

David Gergen, a noted public figure who has served four presidents and his staff analyst James Pitch, recently penned an article “Why Nancy Pelosi is good for America.” Having survived a lifetime of challenges and personal attacks, like her or not, she is symbolic of the changes that are taking place in politics today. For year’s right up to the November election, Pelosi has been a Republican piñata, but the dust has settled and once again she is second in line of succession to the president.

The Gergen research shows that the number of Democratic women in Congress have increased from 64 two years ago,  to 89 today, while the number of Republican women has decreased from 23 to 13. This dramatic change in numbers is no accident. The Democratic Party has gone out of its way to encourage women to seek public office. In Washington, the Republican Party continues to be an “old boy” party.

This past year, some random efforts were made by Republicans to recruit women to run, but many of them lost primary contests to men. Upstate Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik has taken up the cause of recruiting more female candidates, but she has been rebuffed by her fellow members. If you watched the opening ceremonies of the new U.S. Congress you had to notice that the new Democratic majority looks like today’s America and the Republicans resemble a male only corporate board meeting.

How do you account for the surge in female candidates beyond party recruiting? Many qualified women have finally decided that politics is now worth pursuing as a career. They have been encouraged to run seeing the success of others. Organizations like Emily’s List have been supporting candidates all over the country with tangible support. On Long Island, Laura Curran is Nassau County Executive and both Laura Gillen of Town of Hempstead and Angie Carpenter of Town of Islip hold office.

Once upon a time the armed forces refused to allow women to go into combat. Not only has that changed, but the 2019 Congress has six women who have seen active duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. Obstacle after obstacle to women in politics has come crashing down and the business of one-sided politics is fast becoming yesterday’s news. It’s now up to this new generation of leaders to prove they are up to the job. I have no doubt that they will succeed and in a lot of cases do much better than their male counterparts.

By Jerry Kremer


The under-representation of women constitutes a serious democratic deficit, which undermines the legitimacy of the contemporary democratic ideal. Parity democracy and the promotion of women in decision-making positions are therefore important areas of action for EWL. Parity democracy implies the equal representation of women and men in decision-making positions. It goes a step further than quotas as it is based on the idea that women are not a minority: they represent more than half of humanity – a quantitative dimension – and one of its components – a qualitative dimension.

Research shows that women’s under representation in politics boils down to these 5 Cs:

  • Confidence: women – for a variety of highly rational reasons – have more doubts putting themselves up for election
  • Candidate selection: once women agree to run, it’s often difficult for them to get an electable spot on the election list.
  • Culture: politics is a men’s world. Sexism is rampant and external threats – women – are often not welcome.
  • Cash: when women run for election, their campaigns often receive less funding than their male counterparts)
  • Childcare: across the EU, women spend double the amount of time on childcare compared to men

What can we do to support women in politics?

  • Confidence: Invest in women. Set up ambitious training and mentoring programs.
  • Candidate selection: Establish quota or zipping system in order to ensure gender balanced lists. Head-hunt women candidates.
  • Culture: Establish a zero tolerance to sexism with clear channels for report sexual harassment.
  • Cash: Provide earmarked funding for women candidates until equal representation is reached.
  • Childcare: Change the “long hours” culture in politics. Provide childcare facilities.

We take a look at some of the facts and figures about women and their political participation

Women in parliaments

  • Only 24 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of November 2018, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995
  • As of January 2019, 11 women are serving as Head of State and 10 are serving as Head of Government.
  • Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. Women there have won 61.3 per cent of seats in the lower house
  • Globally, there are 29 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of November 2018, including 4 chambers with no women at all.

Across regions

  • Wide variations remain in the average percentages of women parliamentarians in each region. As of November 2018, these were (single, lower and upper houses combined): Nordic countries, 42.3 per cent; Americas, 30 per cent; Europe including Nordic countries, 27.7 per cent; Europe excluding Nordic countries, 26.6 per cent; sub-Saharan Africa, 23.6 per cent; Asia, 19.4 per cent; Arab States, 17.8 per cent; and the Pacific, 17 per cent.

Other domains of government

  • As of January 2017, only 18.3 per cent of government ministers were women; the most commonly held portfolio by women ministers is environment, natural resources, and energy, followed by social sectors, such as social affairs, education and the family.
  • The global proportion of women elected to local government is currently unknown, constituting a major knowledge gap.
  • Women’s representation in local governments can make a difference. Research on panchayats (local councils) in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62 per cent higher than in those with men-led councils. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found.

Expanding participation

  • As of November 2018, only 3 countries have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses: Rwanda with 61.3 per cent, Cuba with 53.2 per cent and Bolivia with 53.1 per cent; but a greater number of countries have reached 30 per cent or more. As of November 2018, 49 single or lower houses were composed of 30 per cent or more women, including 21 countries in Europe, 13 in Sub-Saharan Africa, 11 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2 in the Pacific and 1 each in Asia and Arab States; more than half of these countries have applied some form of quotas – either legislative candidate quotas or reserved seats – opening space for women’s political participation in national parliaments. Gender balance in political participation and decision-making is the internationally agreed target set in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
  • There is established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women’s caucuses – even in the most politically combative environments – and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reform.

Culled from the ‘Women Lobby’ and

What better way to show someone that something is achievable than to point them in the direction of someone who actually did? Not just anyone but someone with a similar background as their own.

Despite the efforts of the women’s movement across the globe women are still largely marginalized in terms of their participation in political, economic and social processes that affect them the most. The 21st-century woman has found her voice yet the percentage of women having a powerful role in different sectors is not reflective of her efforts. She is still not paid enough and there are still sectors she is nervous to approach and this is partly because she has believed that certain goals are not possible to achieve.  At the same time venturing into a certain profession with no real guidance, no known success stories, no knowledge of what is required to succeed and no real motivation is a challenge for many young women. This is where role models such as Michelle Obama come in yet one of the biggest obstacles young women face is their absence.

What is a role model? A sociologist Robert K. Merton was the one who coined the term to describe the ways that people model sets of behaviours they admire in others. A role model is a person whose behaviour, example, or success can be emulated by others, especially younger people.

So why should women have female role models?  Research has led to the conclusion that women benefit more from same-gender role models as compared to men. These are the people whom young women use to define their own identities, gauge their own potential and whose behaviour they will emulate. Let’s explore this idea in greater detail.

Confidence. It often feels intimidating to venture into new territory that no one (you know) has ventured before. It is easier to believe in the possibility of positive change if it happens to someone who had circumstances that are similar to your own. Female role models are important because they instill confidence in young women. Evidence has shown that exposure to female role models may be an effective way to induce more women to major in male-dominated fields. Accomplishments of women such as Barbara Askins – (an American chemist, known for her invention of a method to enhance underexposed photographic negatives, an invention used by NASA and the medical industry) in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) have instilled confidence in young women that they can successfully venture into the same field. A woman needs to see confidence, leadership, and accomplishment in other women in order to envision herself ad finally attain those qualities from these powerful, positive role models (Meier 2018). Jenny Willott; a British Member of Parliament was quoted by the Chartered Management Institute (2014) saying: “Role models encourage women to believe in their own abilities – from girls at school making decisions about their future, to young women starting their careers wondering how far they can get.” Hence female role models are important because they instill confidence in young women in that they quench the need these women have to see people like themselves succeeding in similar fields.

Inspiration through the provision of practical knowledge. “It is achievable. It is not too late for me.” This and similar positive outlooks are born from the inspiration that comes with female role models for young women. Hope is what keeps us alive. It is what drives us and determines our goals, plans subsequently our actions. Female role models such as Oprah Winfrey who rose above major hardships to become very influential are giving young women hope for a better future in different sectors. In the Lockwood and Kunda’s research (2006) demonstrated that an important part of the value of role models is that they are symbols of possibility and offering inspiration. Without female figures such as Serena Williams in the field of sports to look up to, girls miss out on the encouragement, inspiration, and exhilaration that can come from looking up to, and cheering for, a sports idol. (Huggins and Randell 2007) Examples of success stories provide young women with more easily imaginable visions of the success experienced by the role models hence in their minds it becomes attainable and replicable.

Learning from experiences. Female role models also provide the methodology towards success. Their experiences can answer the “How did you get there?” question. Young women can draw a lot of lessons through hearing how their role models came to face challenges and found the right solutions. These are the women who have successfully navigated the career these young women eventually hope to achieve. Looking at role models such as Thai Lee – the Korean American billionaire businesswoman, and president of SHI International, one can learn a lot from her life story and deduce lessons as to how she found herself at the top.

Enforce a positive view of women. Female role models are important in the changing of societal perceptions of women. With the birth of influential female role models, there has been a favourable shift in the societal perception of the role of women, which has led to increased participation in the formal labour employment and other economic activities. Female role models have often been the catalysts that challenge gender stereotypes. For example, through their achievements, elite female athletes dispel the misconception that sport is not biologically or socially appropriate for females. When more and more women are seen in the top of organizations and running high growth technology businesses, the more this will be regarded as the standard and a perfectly normal, and logical, path to choose.

Work beyond inspiring. Michelle Obama kick-started health, education, and other programs as soon as she got into the white house. This is but one of the examples of how female role models have been directly having a positive influence on the fight against poverty, exploitation, and oppression through their advocacy efforts. Nowadays most female role models advocate for opportunities for girls and other women.

Promotion of Ethical Leadership. Recently there has been a focus on the creation of ethical young leaders as part of developmental efforts with special attention being given to efforts in encouraging ethnic leadership in young women. Female role models are commonly expected to behave in an ethically extraordinary manner. It is often assumed that SRMs must be moral exemplars worthy of emulation.

Increased participation of women. Ultimately female role models lead to increased participation of young women. It is argued that ‘The use of high-profile female sports ambassadors and role models can [also] be effective in promoting female participation. More visible women as decision-makers as well as displayed female leadership skills may motivate women and girls, thus increasing female participation at all levels in sport (UN 2007).

Not all role models have a positive influence. Unfortunately, however, the term role model does not always entail positive influence. Young women encounter both positive and negative role models. Success does not necessarily translate into being a role model. Young women are then faced with a task to evaluate virtues, values, and expectations when looking at potential role models. 

The importance of female role models indeed cannot be undervalued. Female role models are important in the context of achieving gender equality and generally in the context of positive social change in society. In the end, there is nothing more powerful than the impact of a woman’s effort to uplift another.

By Karen Whitney Maturure
Harare, Zimbabwe

The next United States Congress will have at least 123 women in the House and Senate, including two Muslim-American women, two Native American women and two 29-year-olds. Ten more women could still win in midterm races that remain too close to call.

Starting in 2019, women will make up nearly a quarter of the 435-member House of Representatives – a record high. Currently, there are 84 women in the House.

The female newcomers’ women will make waves in government – and not just because women legislators often bring greater attention to wage gaps, family leave policy, sexual harassment, child abuse and other critical issues that disproportionately affect women.

As scholars who study political leadership, we believe more women will be also good for Congress for a more fundamental reason: They may just get a broken system working again.

Women try to collaborate.

Washington has been ferociously polarized since the 2016 presidential election, but Republicans and Democrats across the nation have been moving further apart ideologically since the 1990s.

There used to be overlap between the views of Democrats and Republicans, at least on some issues. Now, there is almost none. Ninety-two percent of Republicans now sit to the right of the median Democrat, while 94 percent of Democrats sit to the left of the median Republican, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports.

In Congress, the two parties thwart each other’s legislation and demonize their political opponents as unpatriotic or untruthful.

Americans now see the conflicts between Democrats and Republicans as more extreme than those dividing urban and rural residents or black and white people, Pew surveys show.

The 123 women elected to both houses of Congress – 103 Democrats and 20 Republicans – have the potential to work across the partisan divide.

Numerous studies on gender and problem-solving show that women are often bridge builders, collaborating to find the solutions to tricky problems. Research confirms these findings. In one 2017 study on leadership styles, we found that women are more likely to use inclusive “both/and” thinking, meaning they see conflict and tensions as opportunities for input rather than problems.

Men are more likely to adopt “either/or” thinking – attitudes that advance their own agendas and denigrate those of the other side.

Women build bridges

Women have played this role in Congress before.

When the federal government shut down for 16 days in 2013 over a budget impasse, for example, it was a group of five female senators – three Republicans and two Democrats – who broke the stalemate. Together, they launched a bipartisan effort and negotiated a deal to end the budget showdown.

“The women are taking over,” joked the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.

These days, it seems, McCain’s commentary is less of a joke than a political need.

Numerous studies on teamwork show that groups with women in them function better, in part because women are more likely than men to build social connections that enable conflict resolution.

In other words, female workers in organizations become friends, mentors and helpful colleagues, which builds the trust necessary for solving problems.

Women are not the only people who work like this. In large organizations, minorities tend to seek each other out and form support networks that span hierarchy, job description and even political divides.

Men can build bridges too, of course. Gender does not dictate personality or decision-making style.

McCain, for example, was known for his bipartisan legislative efforts.

But research and history show that women leaders collaborate more often – and better.

A human rights system based on consensus

Eleanor Roosevelt, an outspoken human rights advocate and wife of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, offers a classic example of such behavior.

She led the United Nations working group that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. That landmark 1948 document recognized, for the first time in history, that all people on the planet are guaranteed certain rights, regardless of religion, race or political creed.

The declaration, which was approved by 48 of the 58 countries then in the United Nations, launched the contemporary human rights movement that overcame dictatorship in Latin America, isolated apartheid-era South Africa, enshrined the rights of LGBTQ people worldwide and, today, works to protect refugees and asylum-seekers.

These lasting achievements did not come about because Roosevelt strong-armed other countries.

Instead, the American first lady famously worked to keep her UN colleagues focused on the urgency of devising and passing the declaration, despite criticism, doubt, cultural difference, ego trips and distractions.

After the agreement, Roosevelt insisted that her leadership subcommittee elect a new chair to show the world what effective democratic process looks like.

Women craft better deals.

Women typically adopt more democratic leadership styles, seeking out more participation from everyone in a group. The evidence shows that solutions crafted that way are longer-lasting.

The Council on Foreign Relations has found, for example, that peace talks with women at the negotiating table were more likely to reach an agreement – and that the deals passed were more likely to endure over time.

That kind of inclusive deal-making could change the House of Representatives.

Congress often swings wildly on major policy issues as political winds change, with the new majority party shredding the partisan advances of a previous administration.

Collaborative, bipartisan legislation allows for more durable progress on issues like health care, immigration and the economy – all sure to be a focus for the next Congress.

California Republican Young Kim won in a very tight race against Democratic philanthropist Gil Cisneros. AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Women in a polarized government.

But Congress may not work any better with 123 women than it does with the 84 who serve there now.

Lawmakers are elected to represent their constituents’ interests. And with American society so extremely polarized, a two-party system discourages collaboration.

Many of the newly elected women in Congress additionally came to power on strong, oppositional platforms – promises to fight fiercely against the problems they see in American society.

If Congress’s newest members really want to make an impact – passing laws that aren’t undone after the next election – they will have to do more than push their own agendas. They can work together.

Given what research shows about female leadership, more women could push Washington in that direction.

Wendy K. Smith
Professor of Business and Leadership, University of Delaware

Terry Babcock-Lumish
Visiting Scholar in Public Policy, University of Delaware