Does the prospect of running for office discourage women?

08/16/2014 2:52 PM

08/16/2014 2:52 PM

The electoral process is rarely described as pleasant. But is there something about facing voters that contributes to the relative lack of female candidates in U.S. elections?

Research from two political scientists at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that women may be more “election averse” than men. Among men and women with similar qualifications, ambitions and political environments, the study said, “the fact that representatives are chosen by electoral means is enough to dissuade women from putting themselves forward as candidates.”

The study, by Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon, both associate professors of political science, does not assert that this aversion is the sole cause for the gender gap among elected officials, nor that it represents an innate characteristic of women. But they place the election aversion theory among the variety of factors that have been cataloged by other research.

Drawing on earlier research on competition and women, Kanthak wondered whether aversion to competition extended to the political arena.

“What if there is something about women that makes them not want to run for office that doesn’t have anything to do with external factors?” Kanthak said in an interview. “What if we could completely level the playing field – would women be as likely to run as men?”

The answer, according to the experiment they designed, is no. In the experiment, members of a group volunteered to do math problems (with the possibility of a reward) on behalf of their group. In some cases, the person doing the problems was selected at random from among the volunteers; in other cases, the group elected one of its volunteers to do the problems.

Men and women volunteered at the same rate when problem-doers were chosen at random, but not when they were chosen by election. Kanthak compared the aversion to becoming a candidate to that of asking for a raise: “If women aren’t willing to ask for raises, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re not willing to ask for votes.”

Previous research on female candidates has identified several factors that cause women not to enter the political arena. A report released by researchers at American University in March 2013 concluded that the gender gap among elected officials was unlikely to be closed in the near future because young women have fewer political ambitions than young men.

External social factors, including traditional gender roles, exposure to political news and participation in organized sports, were among the experiences influencing young women not to pursue political careers, based on a survey of more than 2,100 college students. That survey found another factor: that “young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office.”

Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University and director of its Women & Politics Institute, was one of the authors of that study. She said that actual elections offer much more variability than controlled experiments do.

“Although I am a proponent of experimental designs, I worry that this experiment is somewhat too far removed from the reality of a political campaign to establish or shed much light on gender differences in election aversion,” she wrote in an email.

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