Why women do not run for office

Posted by on Jan 13, 2016 in Motivation, Political U[niversity] | 0 comments

Why so few women run for office


Suffragettes in Charleston, RI before 1920

It’s not hard to find articles bemoaning the small number of women who choose to run for office, despite the fact they perform just as well as (and often better than) men once elected. My Yahoo search on “too few women candidates” turned up more than 5.7 million results. There are plenty of reasons given:

  • A 2008 study by The Brookings Institution shows that women lack political ambition, are less likely to endure the rigors of a political campaign, are less likely to be recruited to run for office, and have fewer opportunities than men to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career.
  • The same study shows that women are less likely to think of themselves as “qualified” to run, and tend to perceive the political environment as unfair.
  • Three years later, Yashar Ali, writing for The Huffington Post, found additional obstacles: media bias, lack of financial support, and underfunded organizations to help women run for public. Not content to leave any rock unturned, Mr. Ali discovered another reason: very few women hold senior positions on political campaigns. He found no lack of women interested in campaign work – but too few are hired.

Kay Steiger, writing for Atlantic Monthly, reports that millennial women generally are less interested in running for office than their elders; but high school girls are equally likely to run for student government, and are equally likely to win. Professor Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., explains it this way:

“If you look at their broad socialization as high school students, there were far fewer gender differences than there were once they reached college. So it seems something is happening once they enter college,” Lawless said. “It seems like the key intervention at this point really needs to be on those college campuses because they’re more similar before they get there than when they leave.”

For example, one-third of college men said one of their parents encouraged them to run someday – only one-quarter of college women said the same. In addition, men were far more likely than women to join College Democrats, College Republicans, or College Libertarians; read political news, or discuss politics with friends. One interesting finding: women and men who played varsity sports are more likely to consider a run than those who did not. And the presence of women in competitive sports has risen dramatically: 41.4% of high school girls played competitive sports in 2010-2011, compared with just 7.4% when Title IX was passed in 1972.

Will it get better? Prof. Peggy Drexler of Cornell University, writing for The Huffington Post, isn’t optimistic. The biggest barrier, in her view, is that the United States has a nasty system that keeps us “staying mad, not moving on, locking ourselves into a perpetual cycle of political blood feuds.” “Payback’s a bitch?” she asks, “No. These days, it’s an obligation. And that has many women who might otherwise be inclined to join the fray saying no thanks.” Author Melinda Henneberger, author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear (2007), wrote that most women found the election process such a turnoff that they could barely stand to tune in at all, noting that in 2010, Nancy Pelosi was attacked with 161,203 spots costing $65 million, some of which characterized her as a cackling witch.

There is a broad consensus that we need more women in office, and that governance would be better if more of them were at the helm – but as long as they are subject to gender-specific attacks by their opponents, it is unlikely that they will enter what Prof. Drexler calls “the toxic swamp.” And the percentage of women in the U.S. House of Representatives will remain near its current 19.4%, slightly lower than that of Saudi Arabia.


Help for women interested in running for office

She Should Run is a “national network committed to advancing women and girls in public leadership.” The non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization has worked since 2006 to increase women’s representation and eliminate the barriers described above. They believe that “women of all backgrounds should have an equal shot at elected leadership and that our country will benefit from having a government with varied perspectives and experiences.” Their “Ask a Woman to Run” program encourages women to run and connects them with resources, people, and organizations who can help. The group claims that more than 100,000 women have benefitted from this program. To get started, click on the Get Involved tab in the She Should Run website and select one of the options.

Running Start is a non-partisan group focusing on educating and financially supporting younger women who wish to run. Programs include The Young Women’s Political Leadership Program to teach high school girls about political leadership, the Star Fellowship and Elect Her: Campus Women Win for college women, and the Young Women’s Political Summit for women 14-35.

The best known organization supporting women candidates is Emily’s List, which has worked since 1985 for pro-choice Democratic women. Emily’s List finds, recruits, and trains female community leaders to run for office and helps them build strong campaigns.

Emerge America also identifies, trains, and encourages Democratic women to seek office. They provide a seven-month, 70-hour training program to inspire candidates and give them the tools to win. To get started, click on the Take Action tab on the Emerge America website.

The Republican equivalent is Right Now Women PAC, which provides financial support for women seeking federal office “who share common beliefs in economic growth, individual responsibility, a strong national defense, access to the best education and quality healthcare at a reasonable cost.” In addition, the group sponsors events and research projects to promote women’s participation in politics.

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