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Government & Politics

Political Ambition Gender-Gap Could Last a Generation

By J. Paul Johnson

Participation in competitive sports for girls could close political ambition gender gap

Participation in competitive sports for girls could close political ambition gender gap

American University's Women & Politics Institute director and government professor, Jennifer Lawless in her newly co-authored Brookings paper Not a 'Year of the Woman" . . . and 2036 Doesn't Look So Good Either debunks the notion that 2014 was a watershed year for women running for elected office.

Lawless agrees that there were some notable achievements at the micro level: the first female Senator from Iowa, the youngest woman elected to Congress, the first African-American female Republican to win a House seat, and the first female governor of Rhode Island. Overall, however, Lawless and Loyola Marymount University professor Richard Fox explain that 2014 generally maintained the status quo:

*The number of female governors held steady.
*The 114th Congress will have the same number of women serving in the U.S. Senate as did the 113th Congress.
*The United States still ranks 100 globally in the percentage of women serving in the national legislature.
*The gender gap in political ambition persists.

Dearth of Female Candidates

Despite the fact that Lawless and her colleagues have found that women and men win elections at equal rates, raise comparable amounts of money, and receive similar media attention, women are far less likely than men to run for elected office. "When only about one-third of U.S. Senate or House races feature a major-party female candidate, opportunities for substantial gains are slim for women," says Lawless.

In 2001 and 2011, Lawless and Fox conducted national surveys of male and female potential candidates from the professions most likely to lead to political careers: educators, lawyers, business owners and executives, and political activists. The surveys revealed that men were approximately 40 percent more likely than women ever to have thought about running for political office. This gender gap presents itself regardless of political party, income level, race, profession, or geographical region, and it persists across all age groups. Lawless and Fox say, "No matter how we sliced or diced the data, the results were the same: when it comes to political ambition, men tend to have it, and women don't."

Why 2036 Does Not Look Much Better

Lawless and Fox's research is sobering because the prospects for any marked improvement will take at least a generation. The reason, Lawless explains, is that "The seed of a potential candidacy is planted early in life and only manifests itself into an actual political candidacy decades later." Indeed, Fox and Lawless found that nearly half of those who had considered running for office reported that they first thought about it by the time they were in college.

The professors find that there is little reason to believe that the gender gap in political ambition is smaller among today's young people than it is among adults. Lawless and Fox conducted a national random sample of more than 4,000 high school and college students between September and October 2012. They asked about their general interests in running for office, attitudes toward specific elected positions, and a series of professions to rank as careers that they might consider in the future. In every case, Fox and Lawless uncovered a gender gap in political ambition.

Establishing the Gender Gap

Lawless and Fox asked respondents whether they ever thought that they would run for political office. For 41 percent of them, the idea had crossed their minds. But the gender gap was remarkable. According to Lawless, "Overall, men were 80 percent more likely than women to have thought about running for office;whereas women were roughly 20 percent more likely than men never to have considered it."

College-aged respondents drove the gender gap. Whereas high school boys and girls had similar interest in running for office, the results indicated that, once they entered college, men's ambition to enter politics skyrocketed and women's remained the same.

*College men were twice as likely as college women to have thought about running for office and twice as likely to express "definite" interest in running for office.
*Women were 50 percent more likely than men never to have considered running for office.
*Thirty-six percent of college women, compared to 23 percent of college men, already decided unequivocally never to run for office in the future.
*College men were twice as likely as college women to choose a congressional career as their preferred option, when presented with a series of choices.

Explaining the Gender Gap

Although, no data track young people as they graduate from high school and enter college, Lawless and Fox identify immersion in politics, competitive experiences, and self-confidence as strong predictors of political ambition. And college men are more likely than women to have these experiences.

Colleges offer a wide array of academic options and extracurricular activities. "When students get to college, 'the shackles come off,' and young women and men have much greater control over how they spend their time and what interests they pursue as compared to high school curricula that offers little choice," says Lawless. "Men and women's interests diverge in college and politics is no exception."

When Will There Be a Year of the Woman?

To close the gender gap in political ambition, organizational efforts need to be made to engage women politically during their college years. Lawless and Fox conclude that high-profile, bipartisan women's advocacy groups, or even the Democratic and Republican Parties, would be well-served to launch national initiatives on college campuses.