Former U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt has for several decades, through her organization Political Parity, been gathering stories from across the globe about what happens when women engage in political negotiations.
"One of my favorites is from the negotiations in Darfur," she recently told me. "There was this room full of men arguing and arguing for days and then it's weeks and then it's months and literally years, and in the meantime systemic rape is happening and there is all this murder and looting and people's lives are being destroyed while these men are in this room completely frozen.
"Then these women come in and join the negotiations during the third round, and they listen for a while and then they say, 'You are arguing about where to draw the line between your two territories? And who gets the river?' And the men say, 'Yes, it's very, very important who gets the river.' And the women say, 'That river dried up years ago.' That's their lives. That's their experience. They're [the ones] out gathering the water."
Ms. Hunt shared this story when I sat down to interview her for a film called "Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?" being produced by the Women and Girls Foundation and scheduled to debut in the coming months on WQED.
Ms. Hunt knows the impact women can have in bringing new perspectives to the negotiation table. From 1993 to 1997, she served as ambassador to Austria, where she hosted negotiations and international symposia focused on stabilizing the neighboring Balkan states. Her book, "This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace," explores the important role of women in negotiating reconciliation in the Balkans. We have heard similar stories of the brave, smart, collaborative leadership women brought to negotiating tables in Liberia, Darfur and across Latin America.
This trend is finally becoming evident in the United States, too. As Congress once again found itself paralyzed by partisan bickering and political posturing over the past few weeks, it was the women of the Senate who led the bipartisan effort to find solutions.
"This should not be about someone's speakership. This should not be about the next election. This should be about the future of our country," Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told Savannah Guthrie of "Today" on Wednesday. "We need to keep in mind what the real goal here is, which is getting this country back on track. This is not going to be a Republican solution or a Democratic solution. This is going to be a solution that is good for the country."
It was in that spirit that a bipartisan coalition of the Senate, led by seven women, began to draft the backbone of the bill that ultimately would end the 16-day government shutdown and avoid the possibility of default.
If this is what happens when women make up 20 percent of the Senate, just think of what a powerful cultural change we will see when they reach 50 percent.
A study on problem-solving published in the Journal of Economic Theory by Lu Hong and Scott Page, followed by a book by Mr. Page on the topic, "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies," asserted that "empirical research using problem-solving groups of varying degrees of cultural diversity find that groups consisting of more diverse individuals perform better than groups of homogenous individuals."
Across the globe we have seen women work across party, ethnic, religious, racial, geographic and tribal boundaries to serve broader community and national interests. It was no surprise that, while conducting research for our film, we found that of the 18 countries with elected female heads of state, most are new democracies where women led peace and reconciliation work and established frameworks for inclusive democratic systems accountable to the people. These female presidents are not outliers. They are a natural extension of female leadership cultures in their countries that value strength, smarts, collaboration, honesty and practicality in seeking solutions.
The United States is one of the oldest democracies, and it is thrilling to see that as women increase their representation in Congress and in other policy-making roles they embrace accountability and bring strong negotiating skills to their work. This kind of leadership someday will produce our first female president.
A 2006 study of Fortune 1000 companies by the Richard Ivey School of Business found that a critical mass of three or more women on a corporate board caused a fundamental change in boardroom governance and enhanced corporate performance. In large groups, this aggregates to a tipping point of 33 percent. The U.S. Senate is nearing that point -- and not a minute too soon.
Heather Arnet is CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation and director of "Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?," an upcoming film produced by WGF and ELAS, a Brazilian social investment fund that focuses on women and girls. First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM