The gender gap in both pay and representation is a pervasive problem in business today and I suppose it is not surprising that it extends into the political realm as well. While the existence of the gap may not surprise you, some of the reasons might.

Traditional explanations for fewer women in politics have included fundraising imbalances, sexism in the media and among party bureaucracies, and unsuccessful election campaigns. The impact of these factors on the gender gap in politics has faded and has been replaced with a far more simple explanation: women don’t want to work in politics. This is perhaps more troubling than in the business world, where there is the desire; all that is left is to increase the number of women. The fact that women don’t want to run exposes a far more problematic undercurrent.

Women make up 20% of US Congress, 25% of state legislatures, and 12% of state governorships. Yet, according to a survey by POLITICO, American University, and Loyola Marymount University, women are not clamoring to become elected officials. Among women, 25% of Democrats and 20% of Republicans are interested in running for office. That compares to 35% of Democratic and 41% of Republican men. A similar study was conducted in 2001, and the numbers have not markedly changed.

According to the report “Men Rule: The Continued Under-representation of Women in Politics,” by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, there are a number of reasons why women choose not to pursue politics. The list is rather lengthy:

  • Women see the electoral environment as biased against women and very competitive

    Figures such as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have solidified perceptions of gender bias

  • Women tend to rate themselves as unqualified to run for office, or not to possess the characteristics necessary for election wins: confidence, higher tolerance for risk, and competitive drive
  • Women view the election campaign process negatively
  • Fewer women are encouraged to run for office in both childhood and early adulthood by family and friends
  • Women still own the greater share of housework and child care, leaving less time for the significant time commitment of an election campaign

The gender gap appears to widen in college. The reason may be that more men than women get involved with political organizations on campus. In addition, parental messages seem to be have a big impact. Family and friends were more likely to encourage men to run for political office later in life.

According to another survey conducted by Lawless and Fox, 57% of women view themselves as less qualified to run for office, compared to 73% of men. This wide gap echoes a similar one in the business world, where women underestimate their skills and abilities and men overestimate.

Changing the Landscape

  1. We must change how we talk to girls and women about political careers. Boys and young men are urged to consider political jobs; women are not.
  2. Women need to be encouraged. Until societal conditioning catches up with future generations, women will need encouragement from party officials or other elected members.
  3. Reframe the definition of “politics.” Women are far more likely to run for school boards: places where they feel they can make a change and where those changes affect them personally if they have children. When women see politics as a way to improve their communities and lives, they become just as likely to run for office.

Having more women in government is not only good for a democratic society, it is a place where gender issues such as equal pay and parental leave can be addressed. Will unrest in the current political environment encourage more women to get involved? Time will tell.

Share this page!