The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?

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We argue that the process of selection into political office is different for women than it is for men, which results in important differences in the performance of male and female legislators once they are elected. If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office relative to men, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates. We argue that when either or both forms of sex-based selection are present, the women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts. We test this central implication of the theory by using legislators’ success in delivering federal spending to their home districts as our primary measure of performance. We find that congresswomen secure roughly 9 percent more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. This amounts to a premium of about $49 million per year for districts that send a woman to Capitol Hill. Finally, we find that women’s superiority in securing particularistic benefits does not hurt their performance in policymaking: women also sponsor more bills and obtain more cosponsorship support for their legislative initiatives than their male colleagues. 

August, 2009