Why we keep electing men

A new study by Jennifer Lawless (American University) and Richard Fox (Loyola Marymount University) is called “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U. S. Politics,” and while that title may suggest yet another broadside at the Evil Patriarchy, the actual study says no such thing, other than to suggest that a nation half female probably ought to have more than 19 percent of its electoral offices filled with women.

From the first paragraph of the Executive Summary:

Study after study finds that, when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. No differences emerge in women and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success. Yet women remain severely under-represented in U.S. political institutions. We argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.

A number of factors contribute to this situation, one of which is simply that women, for no substantive reason, tend to think themselves less qualified than men:

[M]en remain almost 60 percent more likely than women to assess themselves as “very qualified” to run for office. Women in the sample are more than twice as likely as men to rate themselves as “not at all qualified.”

Similarly, 100 percent of members of Congress rate themselves as “qualified” or “very qualified,” and we know that can’t be true.

Certainly, because women are more likely than men to view the electoral process as biased against them, self-doubt regarding their qualifications and more pessimistic perceptions of the likelihood of winning may simply be a rational response to what women perceive as a more challenging political context. But the overwhelming majority of people — women and men — do not run for office unless they believe that they have a chance of winning.

That perception of bias was aggravated by 2008 experiences with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin: roughly two-thirds of “potential women candidates” said that Clinton and Palin were subjected to sexist media coverage, and that both of them, though Clinton more than Palin, were on the receiving end of voter gender bias as well. (I demur on the latter point: the bias that afflicted Senator Clinton was, I believe, as least as much a function of Democratic voters’ desire to be seen as non-racist, and poor Hillary was just too white.)

And there’s that whole housework thing, but it’s not as much of a factor as you might think:

[S]urprisingly, women’s disproportionate familial responsibilities do not dramatically affect whether they have considered running for office or express interest in running for office in the future. Forty-eight percent of women who are responsible for the majority of the household tasks and childcare, for instance, have considered running for office. Forty-five percent of women who shoulder no such burdens have thought about a candidacy. In another example, 43 percent of women with children at home have considered a candidacy, compared to 46 percent of women without children at home. Neither of these small differences approaches conventional levels of statistical significance.

The entire report is available in PDF format.

(Via Kevin Drum.)







3 comments

  1. Roger Green »

    16 January 2012 · 12:51 pm

    At least part of the backlash against Hillary was this innate fear of dynasty politics. People just didn’t want Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. I think she would have done better if he hadn’t been married to a former POTUS. Of course she wouldn’t have been as visible if she hadn’t been the First Lady, so there’s that.

  2. McGehee »

    16 January 2012 · 1:44 pm

    Hillary’s best shot at the presidency, I remain convinced, was 2004. Not that going up against an incumbent war president in a fall campaign would have worked for her any better than going up against a tabula rasa black guy did in the 2008 primary contests, but still…

  3. Data Detectives »

    17 January 2012 · 9:45 am

    Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U. S. Politics…

    Yet women remain severely under-represented in U.S. political institutions. We argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office…

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