Why putting 13 men in charge of health care is a lousy idea.
Why putting 13 men in charge of health care is a lousy idea
Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have sparked outrage for the lack of women among their ranks or at the decision-making table.
First there was the widely shared photo of the House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus, meeting to discuss a version of the GOP health-care bill, that showed only men. Then there were the photos of President Trump and House Republicans celebrating passage of their health-care measure in the White House Rose Garden, which also showed mostly white men.
Now many have raised eyebrows over a working group of senators who are drafting and moving ahead on their version of the bill. The reason is similar: The group’s 13 members are all men.
In response, Republican aides have suggested that critics are too focused on how the group works instead of its outcomes. An unnamed GOP aide told CNN, “We have no interest in playing the games of identity politics. That’s not what this is about,” adding that the group would “work with any member of any background who wants to pass a health-reform bill.”
After criticizing the group, CNN’s Erin Burnett read a fuller version of the statement in which the aide detailed policy differences between the committee, saying “to reduce this to gender, race or geography misses the more important point of the diverse segments of the conference the group represents on policies.”
A voice mail left with the press office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and an email sent to a spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the Republican chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, were not returned.
Yet one researcher who has studied how diversity affects group dynamics says diversity of thought or approach to policy — though helpful — usually aren’t enough to produce the best results. Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia University’s business school, has studied how small group discussions benefit from what she calls “surface-level diversity” — the visible differences between team members — in coming up with broader and more innovative ideas.
“It’s almost like a trigger in the room, this salient identity,” she said. Having visibly different people together, such as women, means the senators might think, “‘Well, huh, what would my daughter think about this? Or my mother?’ even if that person doesn’t have a different opinion.”
Her research put people in groups to try to solve a murder mystery. Some of the groups had all white members, and others included people of different races. There was a common set of facts, but each member also got their own clues that only they knew. To solve the murder, all the information needed to be shared.
She found that the groups with racial diversity did significantly better than all-white groups. “Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective,” Phillips wrote in a Scientific American article in 2014.
Similar research by others has found that when a black person presents a dissenting idea to a group of white people, the white people see the idea as more innovative and as a catalyst to consider more alternatives than if a white person had said the same thing. The visible differences between the people provoke them to think differently.
Phillips’s research has focused on race, but she says the concept also applies to gender. “My research would suggest even if the female senator doesn’t say something different, that it would trigger the men in the room to consider that there may be alternative viewpoints.”
GOP aides say that having people with different views on the conservative spectrum is diversity, but Phillips says it’s harder for that to have the same effect. “One of the things about ‘diversity of thought’ is it has to be expressed convincingly — it has to be heard. You cannot be guaranteed that it’s going to be salient to people,” she said. “Whereas racial diversity and gender diversity is vivid. You can see it. Being on the surface allows it to have an impact psychologically.”
Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, says other research shows that adding newcomers to a group might make people less confident in their results but that the results are often better. “When we go into a diverse team group, we’ll prepare more. We expect there to be a back-andforth. When everyone in the room looks like you, you assume everyone has the knowledge.”
Cooper also points to research that shows another drawback to having fewer women represented in the group. “When it comes to policy creation, there are literally studies on what women talk about on the floor in Congress,” she said. Women of both parties have been shown to advocate for breast cancer research, she said, and Republican women have been shown to bring up women’s issues in floor speeches more often than Democratic men.
“They’re much more likely to speak more openly about these issues,” Cooper said. “If women politicians in the political environment are more likely to speak out, and if they’re not in this group of people creating policy, then we can expect their perspective is not as well represented. Personal stories really do matter in this debate.”
The debate about the lack of women in the GOP’s official working group comes as the more general argument for having more women at the table has gained traction. Investors are urging companies to add women to their executive ranks not simply because it looks bad if they don’t but also because more diverse boards and management teams have been linked to outsize financial performance, better advice and less risk.
So what do the five female GOP senators who aren’t part of the health-care group think about it? That’s not yet clear, but one of them — Susan Collins (Maine), a member of the Senate’s HELP Committee — says she intends to work on the measure.
“I spent five years in state government overseeing the Bureau of Insurance many years ago, and I think I can bring some experience to the debate that will be helpful,” she said Monday, according to the New York Times.
President Trump and a mostly male group of House Republicans celebrate the passage of their health-care measure.