by Katie Ziegler
A new report from the Women and Politics Institute at American University examines a question that may be familiar to observers of state legislatures. Why aren’t there more women in public office? At the state legislative level, the ratio of female to male lawmakers has grown by fewer than five percentage points in the past two decades. Women were 20 percent of all legislators following the 1992 elections; today, several states have approximately one-third female legislators, but the national ratio is just 23.6 percent. This “slow growth” isn’t due to bias at the ballot box, as female candidates have been shown to be just as likely as male candidates to win their races. In Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox examine the important first step before any candidate can think about election day: the decision to run for office in the first place.
Lawless and Fox conclude that there is a substantial gender gap in political ambition: men were 16 percentage points more likely than women to have considered running for office, and this gap persists across demographic factors including political party, age, race, income, profession, and region of the country. Their data is drawn from the survey responses of nearly 4,000 men and women with the professional backgrounds that tend to yield candidates for public office: law, business, education, and political activism. The men and women had equivalent knowledge and experience, and yet, across all sectors, women were less likely to express interest in running for office. The authors conducted a similar survey in 2001, and there has been virtually no change in the political ambition gender gap in the intervening ten years.
Lawless and Fox identify seven factors that contribute to this gender gap:
- Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
- Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in electoral politics.
- Women are less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.
- Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than male potential candidates.
- Women react more negatively than men to the necessities of campaigns.
- Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office–from anyone.
- Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.
The report concludes, “many barriers to women’s interest in running for office can be overcome only with major cultural and political changes. But in the meantime, our results suggest that recruiting female candidates and disseminating information about the electoral environment and women’s successes can help narrow the gender gap and increase women’s numeric representation.” Several groups around the country are working to close the ambition gap by doing just that: actively recruiting female candidates and holding campaign trainings and mentoring forums. NCSL will be watching to see whether this increased attention to female candidates will result in an increase in women elected in November.