If Solicitor General Elena Kagan is confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice, not only will the nation's highest court have the most female justices serving concurrently, her presence could change the very way the body makes decisions.
Having three female justices in the mix of nine could change the tone of court discussions and lead to decisions that are more reflective of the views of the entire group, some political scientists predict. Others suggest when it comes to political decision-making, men and women are more similar than different.
"A third female justice should potentially lead to a more compromising tone in the Supreme Court," said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has studied the effect of gender on decision-making in groups.
Greater gender diversity in any group will likely result in decisions that are more democratic, according to a study completed by Larimer and colleagues and published in the journal Political Behavior in 2009.
In the study, the researchers sorted people into men-only and women-only groups, and observed the decisions the groups made during a game in which a pot of real money was shared. The results showed that the women-only groups decided to share the money more equally among all the groups than the men-only groups did. Groups containing both men and women distributed the money more equally than did the men-only groups.
The study also noted that female representation in decision-making groups is more likely to result in decisions that reflect the beliefs of the whole group, rather than just a few members. However, Larimer's work was unable to pinpoint the number of women needed to influence the group decision, or its tipping point.
Compared with men, women encourage more cooperation in groups and strive to find a resolution that makes everyone happy, he said. Women tend to take all members' opinions into consideration in order to reach a universal consensus, while men tend to foster competition and focus on the majority vote, Larimer noted, citing earlier studies.
"Women are less confrontational," Larimer told Life's Little Mysteries. "They are more adept to make decisions that reflect group preferences, rather than just individual preferences."
Group dynamics generally change whenever a new person is added.
"Any time you bring in a person from an underrepresented social group, they bring in a different perspective," said Katherine Cramer Walsh, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
However, the decision-making processes of men and women in politics contain more similarities than differences, Walsh said in a telephone interview.
"The assumption that women are more compassionate is a belief that society used to hold," Walsh said. "But as more and more women fill government positions, it has shown that there is not a great difference in how they make political decisions."