Expert Commentary

Uncovering the origins of the gender gap in political ambition

2014 study in American Political Science Review showing that women are seldom encouraged as much as men to run for office at an early age.

While there has yet to be any formal announcement, there is no question that the most-discussed Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidential election is Hillary Clinton. Indeed, women have come a long way in politics since women’s rights advocate Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for president in 1872 while women were still not allowed to vote. Fast-forward to 2014 when a Pew Research Center report indicates that the majority of the American public (71%) claims that gender “wouldn’t matter” in terms of their support for a candidate.

Despite such progress, it’s unclear if Americans are actually ready to elect a woman to the country’s highest office. Gender attitudes played a role in Clinton’s loss of the nomination to President Obama only six years ago, and women in 2014 only hold 18.7% of congressional seats, despite making up 50.8% of the country’s population. And according to the most recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, the United States ranks 60th when it comes to women’s political empowerment.

Precisely identifying the remaining structural barriers for women entering politics is an essential step to remedying this, and underlying issues of self-perception have now been identified as one strong explanatory factor. A 2014 paper, “Uncovering the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition,” by Richard L. Fox of Loyola Marymount University and Jennifer L. Lawless of American University, continues this line of research.

The authors review previous studies indicating that part of the reason for this gap indeed stems from political ambition: Women are less likely than men of comparable qualifications to run for office or even believe they are qualified to run. By combining responses from a national survey of almost 4,000 high school and college students with a literature review on political socialization and participation, the authors highlight a number of possible explanations for this gender gap in political ambition in the United States.

Key findings from the study, published in the American Political Science Review, include:

  • Holding constant demographics, interest in politics (as measured by activities such as voting or emailing about a cause), and general attitudes about politics and politicians, women are less likely than their male counterparts to “consider running for office; less likely to run for office; less likely to believe they are qualified to seek office; less likely to receive encouragement to run for office; and more likely to perceive a competitive, biased electoral environment.”
  • “Men were almost twice as likely as women to have thought about running for office ‘many times,’ whereas women were roughly 20% more likely than men never to have considered it. Put somewhat differently, 35% of women, compared to 48% of men, considered running for office.”
  • These gender differences when it comes to interest in running for office are more pronounced for college students than for high school students; the authors suggest that the freedom to explore interests in college could be behind the emerging political ambition gap.
  • Family upbringing and environment also seems to play a role in fostering political ambitions: “A respondent who was encouraged to run for office by at least one parent and one other family member is between 41 and 43 percentage points more likely than a respondent who received no such encouragement.”
  • Perhaps due to these family dynamics, 15% of men reported that they first considered running for office before they even graduated from high school compared with only 9% of women.
  • The level of political engagement also appears to influence political ambitions: “A college respondent who visits political websites every day is almost twice as likely as one who rarely or never consults such sites to be interested in running for office.” Of note, college men are almost twice as likely as their female counterparts to visit political websites on a regular basis, 10% more likely to take at least one government or political science class in college, and almost twice as likely to join either the College Democrats or the College Republicans.
  • Participating in competitive activities — such as running for student government or serving on the debate team — also raised a respondent’s likelihood of being interested in running for office by 10 percentage points.
  • Overall, “compared to women, men in college are roughly one-third more likely to receive encouragement from their parents to run for office, discuss politics regularly with their friends, and consider themselves very competitive.”
  • Male and female survey respondents were equally likely to aspire to improve their communities; however, 26% of men but only 17% of women saw running for elective office as the best way to effect positive change.

The authors conclude that “starting at a young age, men’s political interest, discussion and ambition are piqued in a way that women’s are not.” As a result, the researchers argue the gender gap in political ambition and comparative shortage of female lawmakers will likely persist in the near future. They suggest further research focus on the political ambitions of women in college as well as possible training programs for potential female candidates early on.

Related reading: In a 2014 paper for the Brookings Institution, Lawless explains why traditional gender roles — expectations around family — do not affect women’s political ambition as much as assumed. A 2009 paper from MIT published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics explores whether having more women in leadership positions can help reduce gender biases in voters; a 2014 paper from Erasmus University in Rotterdam examines the role women could play in the financial sector; a research roundup of recent studies highlights findings on the work/life balance for today’s professional women; and Harvard University’s Women and Public Policy Program highlights a wealth of research on closing gender gaps around the world — see their Gender Action Portal.


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