Women’s political ambition (or lack thereof)

I must say I hated the title of this Wonkblog post “Everything you think you know about women and politics is wrong.”  Really?  Time to revise my entire Gender & Politics syllabus, I suppose.  Alright, most readers don’t teach that class, but still, way too click-baity.

That said, a nice report on some interesting findings on women and political ambition.   What many people do not realize (which is not the same as being wrong) is that, across the board, women have substantially less ambition for political office than men.  And that, far more than anything else, accounts for the lack of women in political office.  The latest research from Jennifer Lawless (the ultimate guru of women and political office) shows that this is not at all about differences related to parenthood.  The gap between child-less women and men is pretty much the same as the gap between women and men with children.  Here’s the key chart:

So, what’s behind the lack of ambition.  Short version… men are overconfident, women are underconfident.  I suspect this difference extends well beyond politics.  Here’s the longer version from Lawless:

STP: How do you explain the disparity in terms of ambition and confidence about running for office. Is it that men think they are all that, and women don’t?

Lawless: Men overestimate and women underestimate. Men look around and see that lots of people come in all different shapes and sizes. But, for women, to the extent that you don’t fit the mold of say, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sarah Palin, there is greater opportunity for self doubt. Although there is no female bias on Election Day — voters are just as willing to vote for women as men — but that is not the perception, so the women and men thought there was a perceived bias. Women think that they have to be twice as good to get twice as far. The women who are saying that they aren’t qualified are making assumptions based on wrong information, but information that happens to be the conventional wisdom. So getting out the message that people will vote for women is important.

I’m actually quite surprised that there’s basically no impact of family structure or responsibilities.  Personally, the idea of undertaking a grueling political campaign while also trying to do my part in caring for my children seems insane to me.  I’m too lazy to do it when the kids are grown, but it certainly seems more plausible.  Apparently, I’m unusual in thinking that way.  A good friend  is currently running for NC State Senate and her two children are under 5.  At a recent lunch she joked, but seriously, about hardly seeing her kids at all during the week (she’s also holding down a job).  More power to her for making the personal sacrifice because she really wants better for this state, but I am honestly surprised that raising children does not have more impact on political ambition.




About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Women’s political ambition (or lack thereof)

  1. John F. says:

    I’m definitely not the expert but I don’t think the issue is simply a matter of overconfidence vs a lack of confidence for 2 main reasons: 1) women are generally more risk adverse and 2) the same selection bias that attract liberal minded people to universities repels women from political races.

    I think this NY Times article (yes, I’m linking to a Times article) adds some good context: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/why-so-few-women-reach-the-executive-rank/

    On the first point, I think there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that women generally often manage personal and corporate finances in a more prudent way than men, even in countries with cultures around the world that explicitly promote the supremacy of men. I believe this is due to the way in which women generally problem solve, managing for the long term and avoiding risky investments. We can debate nature vs nurture as the root cause but I don’t think it’s that great of a logical leap to recognize that men’s general nature is to engage in more physically risky behaviors and women to avoid such endeavors. Is it a wonder this would extend to the board room or in a run for political office where the stakes are very high especially in terms of the socially risky implications?

    On the second point, politics and political gamesmanship is an inherently adversarial endeavor which turns away many women in the same way that violent team sports, mining, the military and other risky or adversarial occupations don’t generally have equal representation by girls or women. It’s interesting though that far greater numbers of women on a percentage basis can be found on the legislative staffs in state capitols and the U.S. congress including in decision making roles (though not with parity): http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0410/36384.html

    Not only do women generally avoid risky occupations and endeavors but I also think they approach problem solving in a different way than the majority of men. A larger percentage of women can be found heading up non-profits and other social services organizations than can be found in the corporate world and this may represent a desire to affect change without engaging in the direct conflict characterized by politics.

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