Monday, February 10, 2014

More Women Can Run (and should)

A few months ago, we looked at some of the hurdles that women face when running for elected office. In this week’s seminar, however, Kira Sanbonmatsu of Rutgers University discussed her new book with Susan Carroll on how, in fact, More Women Can Run.

It’s a strange paradox that on many counts, women are more politically involved than men---since 1980s, they’ve voted at a higher rate, for example---but still comprise less than ¼ of most state legislatures and less than 18% of the US Congress.

Sanbonmatsu and Carroll surveyed a number of successful female candidates for state legislature around the country for their views on electoral success. In spite of enduring impediments like male incumbency bias and the fact that women are often socialized to behave in certain ways, results from the survey provided three important reasons why and how the decision to run can be made easier for women.

First, successful female officials provided a vast array of answers on the qualifications necessary to run for office. Some said education and personability were vital, others suggested engagement with the community, still others said an enduring electoral base or fundraising ability was the key to success. The conclusion is that there are, in fact, no specific qualifications for electoral success, and successful women come from a wide diversity of backgrounds. Many more women are in fact qualified than realize it.

Second, the decision to run is often more related to a woman’s relationships and networks---certainly more so than for men. For example, a woman is more likely to run for office if a political party leader, spouse, or organization encourages her to do so, than she would be on her own volition. While this relational dependency seems like a barrier, it also means that women’s initial tendencies against running can be changed with a little encouragement; that their initial socialization can be nudged. Increasing women’s representation, then, might just be accomplished with some effective recruitment.

Lastly, some of the current gender disparity, in particular the fact that women’s representation in state legislatures has plateaued in recent years, has more to do with party composition than the role of women per se. While Democratic women hold 32.3% of their party's seats in state legislatures, Republican women hold 16.5%. Today, women are better represented as Democratic state legislators. Changes in partisan politics, then, have had consequences for overall representation of women. According to Sanbonmatsu, this should not be understood as a loss for women generally, but an opportunity for each party to include more women, both parties recruit more female candidates, particularly women of color.

Despite some of the other hurdles, more women can run with more ease than they think---and considering some of the benefits of having women represented, should.

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