RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There's a long held assumption that women are more prone than men to collaborate. Of course the number of women in Congress has increased just at a time when Congress has become notorious for its partisanship and gridlock. As part of our series, "She Votes," NPR's Ailsa Chang takes a look at the power of relationships among women in the Senate.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: What does it mean to act like a woman? Well, if you're talking about the workplace, there are all kinds of theories. Here's Sheryl Sandberg's take. She's the chief operating officer of Facebook.

SHERYL SANDBERG: If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say I'm awesome. If you ask - obviously. Why are you even asking? If you ask women why they did a good job, what they'll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard.

CHANG: We've all heard these stereotypes, that women don't need to steal the spotlight. They're team players. They're consensus builders. These all sound like fantastic qualities to bring to a place full of bickering, like Congress. So do women actually make a difference there? Academic research suggests they do.

CRAIG VOLDEN: Women are, on average, getting more done when in the minority party.

CHANG: In one study, Craig Volden of the University of Virginia found bills introduced by women in the minority party in the House go further than bills offered by men.

VOLDEN: Minority women are about one-third more effective, so about 33 percent more effective than men.

CHANG: The theory is women are better than men at building coalitions, but in this climate of increasing polarization in Congress, it's hard to tell if that's still the case. I decided to consult the Senate's most senior Democratic woman and its most senior Republican woman for answers - Barbary Mikulski of Maryland and Susan Collins of Maine. The three of us met up in space tucked away on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol.

SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: So I've had Barbara Streisand here. I've had Meryl Streep here. I've had Benazir Bhutto.

CHANG: This spot is Mikulski's hideaway. All around the room are photos of women, not just movie stars, but senators, Supreme Court justices. For years this has been the place where Mikulski gathers all the women of the Senate together for mentoring sessions.

MIKULSKI: Yes. This is the home of the power workshop.

CHANG: She picks up a photo of eight female senators clustered around a coffee table.

MIKULSKI: This was taken in 1994 and we made it bipartisan.

CHANG: Mikulski says it's always been easier for women to cross party lines in this chamber.

MIKULSKI: I would say what's different is we're interested in governing, not in winning arguments. So much of the guy culture here comes from, like, a courtroom background where you've got to win the argument.

CHANG: She says one simple reason women in the Senate collaborate more easily is because there are only 20 of them. They actually get to know each other. Every quarter they all meet for dinner. And Collins says it frightens the men.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: One of my colleagues on the subway said to me, now, I understand you women got together last night, and I said, yes. And he said, well, what do you talk about? And I just smiled sweetly and said that we were planning the coup.

CHANG: Collins hasn't mounted any Senate takeovers yet, but as a Northeastern moderate she's known as one of the chamber's most prominent dealmakers. Last October she led the push to end the government shutdown. Collins remembers sitting in her office one Saturday, staring at C-Span and getting fed up with the floor speeches complaining about the shutdown.

COLLINS: My staff was all furloughed, and I just turned on my computer and typed out a plan, a three-point plan.

CHANG: And then she walked straight down to the Senate floor to ask her colleagues to sign on.

COLLINS: It was so interesting to me, because when I left the floor and my phone started ringing, it was my women colleagues whom I heard from first.

CHANG: To be sure, there's plenty of disagreement among the women in the Senate. For example, they were fiercely divided over how best to prosecute sexual assault in the military. But as rancorous as it gets, it's still rougher in the more partisan House, where even seemingly noncontroversial items will inspire battle among women. Like the possibility of a new National Women's History Museum. Here was Republican Michele Bachmann of Minnesota on the floor yesterday.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: This museum that will be built on the National Mall, on federal land, will enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement and the pro-traditional marriage movement.

CHANG: Whatever the research says about women being team players, they're still politicians. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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