Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren't necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.
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Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The truth about women in politics: Female candidates win at rates equal to male candidates and voters tell pollsters they’d prefer to see more women in office. Yet women make up only 18 percent of the U.S. Congress; almost half of the states have never elected a woman to the Senate; and the U.S. ranks in the mediocre middle on several global indices of women’s political leadership—60th on the World Economic Forum’s measure, for example, below Bangladesh and Mexico, and just a notch above Madagascar.

Back when we could count the number of high-level female politicians on one hand, researchers proposed that voters’ sexism, or the lack of qualified women, or the media’s biased coverage, were the culprits. One influential study done in 1990 found that “masculine” traits such as “tough” and “rational” were “considered strong prerequisites for good national and executive-level politicians.” (The authors even advised women that they would do better “if they convince[d] voters that they possess masculine traits and are competent on ‘male’ policy issues.”) We know now that these old theories don’t hold water—so why is progress toward parity moving at such a glacial pace?

Long before leaning in and the confidence code became the rage, political scientists pinned the blame on a “gender gap in political ambition,” according to political scientists Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless. They and others say the problem is that women don’t want to run for office. Other researchers counter that we should pay less attention to individual motivation and more to the nuts and bolts of how electoral systems work. These five studies suggest that to get more women into office, we should be looking at a two-track solution: convince more women to run, and reform the rules of the electoral game.

IT'S NOT THE DOUBLE STANDARD

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Tens of thousands of words have been penned on the handful of tears candidates have shed—but do voters care as much as journalists? In “Testing the Double Standard for Candidate Emotionality: Voter Reactions to the Tears and Anger of Male and Female Politicians,” Deborah Jordan Brooks finds that women running for office are not disproportionately penalized, relative to men, for crying or getting angry. “These displays produce no difference in the critical outcome measures for male and female candidates,” she writes. Nor is there any evidence that “female candidates are at a disadvantage relative to male candidates” on strength and leadership traits. Brooks explains that emotional displays don’t reinforce stereotypes, because traditional stereotypes about male and female political candidates “don’t exist in the current era.” Brooks isn’t claiming that gender stereotypes have necessarily disappeared from American society as a whole; only that, in line with findings about business leaders, “political leaders may be relatively immune to them as a function of their status.” The study has broad implications. As Brooks writes, “We should not be too quick to conclude that the public holds double standards for female candidates.”

—“Testing the Double Standard for Candidate Emotionality: Voter Reactions to the Tears and Anger of Male and Female Politicians,” by Deborah Jordan Brooks, Journal of Politics, April 2011

IT'S NOT THE MEDIA

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Media coverage isn’t sexist and gender bias doesn’t influence how people vote, according to a study by political scientist Danny Hayes. Hayes upends the conventional wisdom that the media is in thrall to old sexist tropes. In a content analysis of media coverage of the 2006 Senate elections, he found no evidence that the media engaged in “direct gender stereotyping” and “minimal evidence that news coverage promoted gender stereotyping.” Likewise, looking at voter opinion in those elections, Hayes found no statistically significant differences in sex stereotyping of male and female candidates. “Despite the literature showing that people perceive women as more compassionate and empathetic than men, and men as stronger leaders than women,” he concluded, “I did not find this to be true in assessments of political candidates.” The finding held for Democrats and Republicans—although in an interesting twist, voters rated male Republicans more stereotypically feminine than female Republicans. Voters, however, weren’t entirely free of bias. When deciding how to vote, they did fall back on stereotypes—partisan ones, such as that Republicans are tougher and Democrats are more compassionate.

—“When Gender and Party Collide: Stereotyping in Candidate Trait Attribution,” by Danny Hayes, Politics & Gender, June 2011

IT'S NOT FAMILY AND MOTHERHOOD

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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is prohibited from bringing her children onto the Senate floor. But that doesn’t stop her from casting votes from the chamber’s doorway, where she can keep an eye on her two young sons during frequent early-evening votes. To test the conventional wisdom that gendered family roles might be the reason for women’s “absence from high-level electoral politics,” Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless analyzed survey data from nearly 4,000 qualified potential candidates. They came to a resounding nope. To be sure, women still spend more time than men taking care of children and doing housework, but that isn’t deterring them from pursuing political careers. The “statistical evidence is overwhelming,” Lawless and Fox write. “Regardless of how we measure family structures and responsibilities, gauge political ambition, or specify our models, the results are always the same: Family roles and structures do not predict interest in running for office.” That’s because, for American women, “the struggle to balance family roles with professional responsibilities has simply become part of the bargain.” In other words, the Senate may be a more exalted setting than a typical American workplace, but there is nothing unusual about Senator Gillibrand’s balancing act.

—“Reconciling Family Roles With Political Ambition: The New Normal for Women in Twenty-First Century U.S. Politics,” by Richard L. Fox and Jennifer L. Lawless, Journal of Politics, April 2014

IT'S AMBITION

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This summer Lawless and Fox published another new study tailor-made to depress every champion of women’s political equality. As early as high school, they found, girls express less interest in holding political office in the future than boys do. However, studies on “the role model effect” by political scientists David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht suggest the state of American girl-power might not be so dire. Change the face of candidates, change the conversation at home, and girls get a jolt of political ambition. Teenage girls are more likely to imagine themselves involved in politics, including running for office, when and where they see viable female candidates. In fact, in communities with viable female candidates, girls express the intention to be politically active at higher levels than boys do. The boost in interest doesn’t result from girls seeing non-traditional roles for women, but rather from more conversations about politics among parents and daughters. Looking forward, Campbell and Wolbrecht write, “a highly visible woman politician in the future—perhaps even at the top of a major party presidential ticket—has the potential to generate significant interest in political activity among adolescent girls with possible long-term effects on the political engagement of women.”

—“See Jane Run: Women Politicians as Role Models for Adolescents,” by David E. Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht, Journal of Politics, May 2006

AND IT'S THE SYSTEM

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Change the rules of the game and you’ll change the faces of the players. That is the takeaway from a study of 31 democracies around the world. In most nations, legislative elections are a bit like the lottery—several winners share the jackpot. In the U.S., it’s more like single combat: two fighters, only one man or woman left standing at the end. Even among nations with similar levels of economic development and voter support for women’s equality, more women win office in systems that elect two or more representatives in each district, according to Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer and William Mishler’s analysis. For example, in Sweden, voters in each county choose several Riksdag members; a party that wins 25 percent of the vote will gain 25 percent of the county’s seats. The U.S. House, by contrast, uses a single-member, winner-take-all system: Each district chooses one and only one person to represent them. Voters for the second-place (and lower) candidates in effect go unrepresented. (Women make up 18 percent of the U.S. House; they make up 45 percent of Sweden’s Riksdag.) The system matters in the U.S. too, according to an influential 1994 book, Women, Elections, and Representation; in the relatively rare cases in which voters elect two or more representatives per district in state legislative contests, more women run and more women win.

—“An Integrated Model of Women’s Representation,” by Leslie A. Schwindt- Bayer and William Mishler, Journal of Politics, May 2005

Five Studies is Pacific Standard’s biweekly column that identifies and analyzes the best academic research to deliver new insights on human behavior.

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