Expert Commentary

The continued under-representation of women in U.S. politics

2012 report from American University and Loyola Marymount University analyzes on women's performance and participation rates in politics.

Some 101 women were elected to Congress in 2012 — 20 in the Senate and 81 in the House of Representatives — making the 113th Congress the most diverse in history in terms of gender diversity. Still, the United States ranks well below many similar nations in the representation of women in national politics, and the stark gender gap at the highest levels — the House and Senate have a total of 535 seats available, after all — is similarly present at the state and local levels. Despite their under-representation, when women do run for office, research consistently shows that they perform as well, if not better, than their male counterparts.

A 2012 report from American University and Loyola Marymount University, “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics,” analyzes why, if women perform well when they do participate in politics, they are still so severely underrepresented. Analyzing 2001 and 2011 survey data from thousands of “potential candidates,” both male and female, the researchers report a number of findings that help them attribute the dearth of women in American politics to a “gender gap in political ambition.”

The report’s findings include:

  • In both 2001 and 2011, women were “16 percentage points less likely than men to have thought about running for office.” Women’s interest in running for office at some point in the future decreased during the 10-year period — from 18% in 2001 to 14% a decade later. Additionally, among the respondents interested in a future run, women are more likely to express interest in local or community office, while men are more likely to express interest in state and federal office.
  • The authors identify seven primary factors that are related to women’s reluctance to pursue political office. Among these, there is a gender difference in the “perception of the electoral environment,” with women about 25% more likely to view local and congressional elections as “highly competitive,” as compared to men, and more likely than men to believe that women do worse than men when they do run for office.
  • “Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena,” with 65% and 69% of women respondents reporting that Clinton and Palin received sexist media coverage, respectively. Additionally, 84% of female respondents felt Clinton “faced gender bias from voters in 2008.”
  • “Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office,”and more than twice as likely as men to feel they are “not at all qualified” to run for office. These gender differences exist despite the roughly equal amounts of political and leadership experience possessed by women and men in the sample.
  • “Women are significantly less likely than men to report that they have the traits that are generally required of candidates for elective office,” including confidence, competitiveness and propensity for taking risks.
  • “Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns,” in particular the possibility of participating in a negative campaign, reduced time with one’s family and loss of privacy.
  • Women are less frequently encouraged to run for office at the suggestion of both those involved in politics and other personal contacts.
  • “Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.” Among the two-career families with children in the sample, women were “roughly six times more likely than men to bear responsibility for the majority of household tasks,” and “about 10 times more likely to be the primary childcare provider.” As an added caveat, “women in the sample are significantly less likely than men to be married and have children.”

In related research, a 2010 study published in American Journal of Political Science, “Gendered Perceptions and Political Candidacies: A Central Barrier to Women’s Equality in Electoral Politics,” also found that between men and women with comparable credentials, backgrounds, and experiences, women were substantially less likely than men to perceive themselves as qualified to seek office.

Further, a 2010 study from the University of Pittsburgh, “Valuing Diversity in Political Organizations: Gender and Token Minorities in the U.S. House of Representatives,” finds that certain structural dynamics around fundraising and leadership serve to create an implicit “glass ceiling” for women in Congress. Some research has also explored how political and legislative outcomes may differ when women are in decision-making roles.

Tags: inequality, women and work

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