You are here: American University Media Relations News Seven Factors Reveal Why Women Don’t Run for Office

Government & Politics

Seven Factors Reveal Why Women Don’t Run for Office

By  | 

politics women

Despite the prodigious attention the media devote to female political figures, such as Michele Bachmann, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin, a new study conducted by American University School of Public Affairs associate professor of government and director of the Women and Politics Institute Jennifer L. Lawless  and associate professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University Richard L. Fox reveals a continued and substantial gender gap in political ambition among both Democrats and Republicans.  Men tend to have it; and women don’t.  

In their new report, Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics, Lawless, a 2006 candidate for Congress seeking the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island’s second district, and Fox detail the results of a survey of nearly 4,000 lawyers, business leaders, educators, and political activists, all of whom are well-situated to run for office.  Even with the emergence over the past ten years of high-profile women in politics, the authors find that the gap between women and men’s interest in running for office is the same today as it was a decade ago.  

The report identifies seven factors that contribute to the gender gap in interest in running for office:

1.    Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.

2.    Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.

3.    Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.

4.    Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.

5.    Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

6.    Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.

7.    Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.

Given the persistent gender gap in political ambition and the deeply entrenched nature of these factors, the United States remains a long way from a political reality in which women and men are equally likely to aspire to attain elective office.  To be sure, both major political parties are running a record number of female candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2012.  But women, assuming they win their primaries, will still compete in fewer than one-third of all races.  Thus, even if 2012 is a “banner year” for female candidates, it will likely still amount only to a 1 to 2 percentage point increase in number of women serving in the U.S. Congress. 

Certainly, recruiting female candidates and disseminating information about the electoral environment can help narrow the gender gap in ambition and increase women’s representation.  But many barriers to women’s interest in running for office can be overcome only with major cultural and political changes.  In the end, this report documents how far from gender parity we remain, as well as the barriers and obstacles we must still surmount in order to achieve it.