Volden Wins Honor for Paper That Highlights How Women Policymakers Thrive

Volden Award
Batten's Craig Volden and co-author Rachel Augustine Potter were recognized for their research exploring the effectiveness of female agency leaders.

When it comes to bureaucratic leadership, no across-the-board benefit comes from having women at the helm of federal agencies, according to a now award-winning paper from the Batten School’s Craig Volden.

But the paper, which dives into the effectiveness of female agency leaders over three presidential administrations, identifies two circumstances where they are “particularly effective” and often outperform men — in supportive workplace environments and when leading agencies that work on a broad set of “women’s issues.”

Volden, a professor of public policy and politics and co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, and Rachel Augustine Potter, an associate professor of politics in UVA’s Department of Politics, co-authored the paper titled, “A Female Policy Premium? Agency Context and Women’s Leadership in the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy.” The paper won the Riccucci-O’Leary Award at the Public Management Research Association’s annual conference in late May. The award recognizes the best article on diversity published in the association’s journals.

Volden is hopeful the research prompts agency leaders to take a hard look at their workplace practices. “The finding that’s most compelling to me is the extent that there are still many agencies that are not as supportive of women,” Volden said. “It’s not harmful to men who are leading them to make them more supportive of women. It is beneficial to women leaders, beneficial to the policy outcomes that we get.”

The rule makers

Government officials might not make many headlines. But, especially now, when it’s difficult to reach much agreement in the legislative process, their work behind the scenes to lobby for and successfully push through new rules and regulations shapes our daily lives, Volden said. 

“If we can’t resolve those issues through Congress, a lot of it gets delegated to bureaucracies, to regulatory agencies to come up with how do we actually want to carry out these broad policy objectives,” he said. “These agencies, themselves, then formulate the rules. And, to the extent that they are given discretion by Congress to do it, these rules … actually have the full force of law.”

While previous studies have highlighted the benefits of female agency leaders in how they serve constituents and implement policy, Volden and Potter wanted to uncover the impact of female bureaucrats on actual rulemaking — advancing rules and getting them approved.

Pulling the data

Based on prior research, Volden and Potter had some idea of the contexts in which women have shown to be most effective. Other researchers, for example, have demonstrated that women excel when working on women’s issues, in part, because they are passionate about them. And in female-friendly settings, they can attain more political power.

To test their assumptions, Volden and Potter studied the impact of agency leaders from 1995 to 2014. They considered all executive branch agencies that issued at least one proposed rule during the timespan and used public resources to identify the leaders, who typically ranked just below cabinet-level secretaries. Altogether, they found thousands of proposed rules that were issued by about 500 leaders, men and women, across 142 agencies.

“Women’s issues” were defined based on Volden’s previous research that spotlights issues in Congress where women were introducing bills at a much larger rate than men. They are civil rights and liberties; education; health; housing and community development; labor, employment and immigration; and law, crime and family.

Work environments were considered supportive when women had the same — or better— status, presence and compensation as their male co-workers.

With the data in hand, Volden and Potter found that women do excel, as they expected, in supportive environments and, to some degree, when working on women’s issues. In those contexts, they are more likely to push for major policy changes and follow them through to approval.

In fact, at the Federal Aviation Administration, pegged as unsupportive by their calculations, a female leader was 29 percent less likely to usher a proposed rule to approval than a male leader, the paper says. But, at the National Science Foundation, identified as a female-friendly workplace, they were 24 percent more likely to finalize a new policy.

‘Glass walls’

Findings like these could perpetuate the so-called “glass walls” effect that segregates women and men in agencies and environments where they are doing their best work. That might be the most obvious way to address the fact that women excel in specific contexts, but it isn’t a good solution, Volden said.

Glass walls only prevent the “free movement” of talent, the paper notes. Volden hopes the findings trigger bureaucrats to take a different tack: Ensuring all government agencies provide supportive climates where female leaders can thrive.

“The fact that there are some environments that have stayed unsupportive of women means that, probably, our first goal is to make sure that these are supportive work environments, across the board,” Volden said. “And then we can just find the most capable candidate to lead the agency rather than gendering them from the beginning.” 

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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