Monday, November 18, 2013

Make the Road by Running: Why don’t women want to run for office?

Needless to say, women are severely underrepresented in elected office in the United States. Only 17% of the federal House of Representatives, 20% of the US Senate, 10% of state governors, 26% of state legislators, and 12% of big-city City Halls are women. Ninety-five countries surpass the US in women’s representation in national legislatures---and America’s actually been slipping further in the last few years.

This is definitely due to some of the common culprits, like media bias against women, the fact that women have less experience in feeder professions like corporate leadership and government---though this is changing slowly---and voter preference for those incumbents (men) who have already been in office, to say nothing of pure sexism.
Women of the US Senate

But, according to Jennifer Lawless, Professor of Government at American University and one of the country’s leading experts on women’s political participation, the main reason for the underrepresentation of women in politics is a lack of political ambition.

In this week’s WAPPP seminar on “Uncovering the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition,” Professor Lawless discussed how early socialization affects people’s political views: if girls are raised in a very politically active family that discusses politics and exposes them to those ideas, they’re more likely to be interested in getting involved. But in a national sample of young people, political ambition begins to stratify just as early, with women saying they would rather be business owners or teachers before they would even consider running for local office.

This stratification, however, gets even worse in college: by then, men are not only more competitive, self-confident, and perceived to be culturally “appropriate” for political leadership, but they get more involved in political activities by that age.

Why don’t women? Is it because of the specific responsibilities in elected office, or all the painful political mudslinging people have to suffer in order to get there?

According to those same surveys, women are equally likely to want to improve their communities. They’re just not sure if public office is the right way to do it.

But having more women in elected office is not just equitable, but produces better policy and political outcomes. In the recent US Federal government shutdown, as one Huffington Post article put it, “Men Got Us Into The Shutdown, Women Got Us Out”--referring to a bipartisan group of female Senators who broke the impasse by committing to negotiation.

So how do we encourage greater female political ambition? The Democratic National Committee’s quota of reserving 50% of their delegations for women hasn’t produced the outcomes we’ve sought.

Professor Lawless offered some excellent advice from her own unsuccessful campaign for US Congress in Rhode Island. She confessed that, though her candidacy was made much easier by the fact that she didn’t have to juggle a regular career, family, and a public political life simultaneously (as many other women do), the path was nonetheless fraught with discrimination and emotional frustration. But the experience of running is itself empowering; gender stereotyping is a self-fulfilling prophecy that can only be undone when more and more women realize that it gets better. Having women set their own ambitions higher and working towards them paves a smoother path for others.

Women can only make the road by running.

Photo source.

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