Book Talk: Power in Numbers

In ‘Broad Influence,’ explores how America is changing as women reach critical mass.

Photo Illustration (Author photo by Melissa Golden for TIME)

Photo Illustration (Author photo by Melissa Golden for TIME)

In her first book, veteran Washington journalist Jay Newton-Small takes us to Capitol Hill and beyond to look at how women are changing the way America works politically, socially and economically. “Broad Influence” (TIME Books, $27.95) is the result of Newton-Small’s telling interviews with more than 200 women including Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Valerie Jarrett, Janet Napolitano and Kirsten Gillibrand.

WL: You wrote a magazine article in 2013 called “Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington” about how women in the Senate “set new standards for civility and bipartisanship” during the government shutdown. Was this article the inspiration for “Broad Influence”?
JNS: Yes. I spent about six months researching and getting a sense of the women in the Senate and how they worked together because it was the first time that there were 20 women. They had a huge impact on that session — they ended up producing 75 percent of the major legislation that passed. They came together to restart negotiations to reopen the government and none of the men would talk to each other. What interested me was the 20 percent women. I had a lot of letters that would say, it’s not just the Senate; when women reach critical mass they change how things are done. The idea of that interested me, so I began researching other areas where women were reaching critical mass. The book grew from there — the idea that at somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, whether it’s a legislative body or a corporate board or a Navy ship or an appellate court, women begin to change the culture of the place.

WL: Why do you think this book is needed in 2016?
JNS: Well, it’s quite a year for women! You have two presidential candidates. It’s the 100th anniversary of the first woman elected to Congress four years before women got the right to vote. Also, whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence talking about pay equity or Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, you have an awareness of women’s issues now, and a sense of women coming into their own. Women are becoming leaders; they’re starting to change the way we’re doing things. We talk more about how women are perceived and how women’s voices are heard.

WL: Fewer women run for office than men. What needs to happen for this to change?
JNS: There are about four times the number of elected Democratic women than Republican women, whether at state and local offices or federal offices. That’s a challenge for Republican women because they’re not anywhere near the critical mass to be partners with Democratic women. In the House, you have at least 62 Democratic elected women and only about 22 Republican women. If you really want women to effectively work across the aisle, represent other women, and bring diversity to the table, you need to reach that critical mass on the Republican side.

WL: What influence do you hope the book will have on women and the workplace?
JNS: It was heartening to discover that we don’t need parity in order to make a difference. We just need to get to critical mass. We’re so close in so many areas and the change is tangible when you get there. Even if it’s a journalist covering the White House or covering campaigns, there’s so many women now. When I started 13 years ago, there weren’t that many women, and there’s a real difference when you reach that tipping point. The workforce isn’t such a male-centered place anymore. There are chances for advancement, to be heard, to have influence, and to change the way things are done. I think that’s empowering. I wanted to write a story about the successes. I’m not trying to gloss over the challenges but it is great to look at where we are making a difference and how we can expand that. That is inspiring and I hope other women find it is as well.

This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of Washington Life.

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