Last week, the New York Times Editorial Board ran an editorial discussing women’s representation in government. In it, they lamented declining numbers of women council members in the New York City Council and the underrepresentation of women in local and state governments nationwide.
They are correct in their assessment of the underlying problem: Roughly 25 percent of America’s large city governments are comprised of women; at the state level, women also make up about one quarter of their governing bodies, on average. And the statistics shrink even more at the federal level: women’s representation hovers at 19.4 percent of the House of Representatives and 21 percent of the Senate.
Indeed, the United States champions itself as a beacon of democracy, yet nearly a century after granting its women citizens the right to vote, it clocks in behind ninety-eight other countries with regard to women’s participation as representatives in elected government bodies.
The editorial reminds us that women perform just as well as men in elections once they’re on the ballot—but they’re not running. The Times Editorial Board then parsimoniously attributes the reasons behind women’s decisions not to run to the following:
“Some social scientists cite traditional family arrangements that limit women’s career choices. Researchers at the Brookings Institution have found what might be called an ambition gap, with women underestimating their abilities and chances for success. It makes them less likely than men to even consider seeking public office, or to have political professionals encourage them to run.”
The political ambition gap the Editorial Board refers to is certainly one explanation of the lower levels of women running for office in the United States. The Brookings study, authored by political scientists Drs. Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, focused in on the point at which this gap develops between American girls and boys, women and men. Their survey research found extremely similar results between genders when high schoolers were asked if they had ever considered running for office. By college, however, the differences had emerged—two times as many men, as compared to women, declared “definite” interest in running for office in the future, and women were about 50 percent more likely than their male peers to state that they would never do so.
And as the Editorial Board made sure to note, Lawless and Fox do cite research that college women are more likely to think about prospective parenthood than men as an explanation of the emergent political ambition gap between college women and men. They also made note of studies across the social sciences that have indicated young women transitioning from “the small pond of high school to the larger pond of college” might doubt their abilities more than their male peers do.
But there’s more to the story.
Lawless and Fox also found that the choices to which their survey participants—like college students across the country—are exposed with regard to what classes to take, what activities to get involved with, are still traditionally gendered. For example, men were 10 percent more likely than women to enroll in a political science course. It is also in college that many students are exposed to “the gendered realities of alcohol consumption, date rape, sexual harassment, and Greek life at American universities, all of which can work to depress women’s autonomy.” Lawless and Fox continue, importantly: “There is little doubt that these dynamics reinforce different roles for women and men in college and play a fundamental role in the ‘choices’ women and men make. They might also explain why women in college are so much more likely than men (and their high school selves!) to doubt that they will be ‘qualified’ to run for office in the future.”
What Lawless and Fox get at in assessing the normative implications of their survey research—that the Times misses the opportunity to highlight—is the gendered nature of American institutions and how they stack up against women, explaining the so-called political ambition gap as well as additional societal barriers to running for office. In this vein, Center for American Progress senior fellow Judith Warner has criticized the “so-called female ambition gap,” remarking, “Political ambition does not exist in a vacuum; it stems from a sense of what’s possible. That’s why any discussion of political parity that focuses on women’s internal processes regarding the decision to run without taking into account the external forces weighing upon that decision will necessarily miss the mark.”
From recruitment and the political establishment, to concerns about campaign funding inequities, to wealth gaps and the high costs of a political career, that women would not be interested in running for office could be considered less of an ambition gap and more of a rational choice! Women are often discouraged early on from entering politics because they have a vague idea that running for office would be harder for them based on their gender. This is easy to understand in the wake of the 2016 election campaign cycle, during which the first female nominee for president of the United States by a major political party, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was relentlessly subjected to sexist media bias.
But as noted by political science professor Dr. Jessica Preece, if we want to reverse this trend of women’s underrepresentation, a good starting point for reform is looking at the facts. She remarks: “One of the reasons to do sophisticated, empirical research on this topic is to find out whether the deck is stacked against women, and then which ways it is and which ways it isn’t,” Preece said. “It might not be as bad as you think it might be.”
Recruitment and the Political Establishment
Many scholars refer to the political establishment’s control over candidate selection and elections as “gatekeeping.” Party leaders, elected officials, donors, and advocacy groups all serve as these gatekeepers and play a large hand in the active recruitment of candidates. Warner writes about these gatekeepers and how they short-list candidates: “Favored candidates tend to be familiar faces who will predictably uphold party interests and—above all—have easy access to money and the ability to devote considerable personal resources, including time, to their campaigns.”
That viability in the eyes of gatekeepers rests largely on personal resources is problematic for women given the glaring gender wage gap in the United States, particularly for women of color. Scholars Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz coined the term “wealth primary” to describe this first candidate selection process by gatekeepers, which Warner notes is significantly “voterless.”
The argument for more recruitment of women candidates does not have to be about compensating for women’s lack of confidence or interest or ambition in politics, but about giving them the same levels of encouragement as men.
In a 2008 study that measured political recruitment between men and women (with similar levels of income, career status, political interest, age, and education), Lawless and Fox found that women are less likely to receive encouragement to run for office from both gatekeepers and political actors, as well as from non-political actors ranging from coworkers to family members. This is significant: the argument for more recruitment of women candidates does not have to be about compensating for women’s lack of confidence or interest or ambition in politics, but about giving them the same levels of encouragement as men.
Wealth Gaps and the High Costs of a Political Career
As personal wealth plays a hand in recruitment and campaigning, it also plays a hand in the feasibility of living of an elected official’s salary. Warner gave some extreme examples:
“Many local and state-level elected offices pay so poorly that it’s very difficult for people without deep pockets—or a high-earning spouse—to consider a career in politics. Legislators in Texas earn just $7,200 per year, for example, plus a $190 per diem for expenses, while those in New Mexico earn no yearly salary and are provided a daily allowance of up to $163 for official expenses.”
In some localities, holding office is considered a part time-job, further penalizing people who are not wealthy and/or do not have the necessary support systems in place. Roadblocks of this nature at the local level keep these candidates out of the pipeline for higher office, as well. As a reminder, the median wealth for single women overall ages 18 to 64 was only 49 percent of the median wealth of their single male counterparts. And race drastically compounds the inequities for women: single white women with a bachelor’s degree have seven times the wealth of single black women with college degrees.
Due to the widespread perception that it is more difficult for women to fundraise on political campaigns than it is for men, Preece, along with fellow political scientists Michael Barber and Daniel Butler, conducted an in-depth survey on campaign finance. They found that men do raise substantially more money than women do as candidates with regards to both campaign contributions and individual donors, and that men donate more money to male candidates.
It’s worth noting that the survey also found that PACs and parties give about the same amount to each gender; and that the fundraising gap shrinks for incumbents, regardless of gender. With these lattermost findings in mind, it’s possible that the concern tied to difficulty funding campaigns as a woman—on top of the other political opportunity structures already mentioned—is impacting women’s underrepresentation more than inequities in funding themselves.
In recognition of these systemic and institutional barriers women face in their participation in democracies, the onus should not fall squarely on the shoulders of women as individuals to confront the underrepresentation problem. Many countries have implemented gender quotas in efforts to level the playing field for women running for office. Despite quotas’ positive effects on women’s representation, we have not and likely will not see gender quotas undertaken by the United States. However, a number of localities have undertaken ranked-choice voting, where voters choose more than one candidate in order of preference. This system has been linked to the election of higher numbers of women, people of color, and women of color.
The onus should not fall squarely on the shoulders of women as individuals to confront the underrepresentation problem.
As the Times editorial mentions, many of the organizations dedicated to helping women run for office are now stepping up to address/combat many of these inequities, beginning with recruitment. This is imperative—not just for more fair and democratic representation, but for any hope of a continued upward trend of women candidates coming forward. While the Editorial Board made note of the legislative gains women politicians can make, their election also has critical symbolic implications for the “role model effect:” When women are visible as representatives, women and girls view women representatives more favorably, and political participation as more tangible.
I believe the “Women’s Voice Remains Faint in Politics” editorial—though surely women in this country have more than one cumulative voice they would like to hear speaking on their behalf?—raises some good points about underrepresentation. But by dedicating too much coverage to women’s “ambition gap” without analysis of the structures and institutions that have also kept women out of politics (and are at the root of any political ambition gap to speak of), the Editorial Board runs the risk of readers walking away from the issue believing that women’s confidence is to blame.