Friday, May 30, 2008

Why Don't Women Run for Elected Office? Ambition Gap or Responsiblity Overload?

The latest report from the Brookings Institution's Issues in Governance Studies series underscores what many of us have known for a good long time: more women aren't running for elected office because the daily circumstances of their lives just don't make room for it. In short, the traditional social supports that encourage men's political ambitions have not yet been extended to women in quite the same way.

Things aren't all bad. As illustrated by Hillary Clinton, the country in many ways has generally accepted the notion of voting for women as candidates and politicians, and when women run they generally do pretty much as well as their male counterparts. Yes, there is still sexism -- the coverage of Hillary clearly shows that -- but this study shows that the acceptance levels of women politicians is supposedly better than we thought -- to the extent this is true, this is the good news.

Women's underrepresentation, say authors and political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, "is not because of discrimination against women candidates. In fact, women perform as well as men when they do run for office. In terms of fundraising and vote totals, the consensus among researchers is the complete absence of overt gender bias." I'm not sure I buy the idea of a complete absence of gender bias -- I suppose the key word here is overt. Plus, I'll keep in mind that this survey was done in 2001, prior to this seemingly endless primary campaign.

The researchers did find something interesting in terms of women's political candidacy: something they're calling an ambition gap. Specifically, the researchers believe that the "fundamental reason for women's underrepresentation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don't." Huh.

The researchers came to this rather interesting conclusion based on a survey conducted with thousands of educators, business leaders, and political types. They found "compelling evidence that women, even those in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment, are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elected office." Apparently these outcomes were consistent regardless of age, income, partisan affiliation and occupation.

The number of women seeking political office grew steadily during the 1980s, surged in the early 1990s courtesy of the Year of the Woman, and has since leveled off. Today, women account for fewer than a quarter of elected statewide officials, one in six members of Congress, and most relevant to the road to White House -- eight of 50 governors. So, this ambition gap has apparently not changed much over the years, despite women's expanded opportunities.

I have a completely different take on the situation than the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus, who penned an op-ed on the study and seemed to think that women were our own worst enemies. "Sometimes the hardest glass ceilings are the ones women impose, whether knowingly or unconsciously, on ourselves," wrote Marcus.

Whoa. Hold on, there, Ruth. Your own op-ed and the study itself lays out quite nicely the tangible reasons why women have fewer political ambitions than men -- and they certainly don't seem to be about self-imposed barriers to me. Let's consider the issues the study raised that seem to impede women from harboring political ambitions.
According to Lawless and Fox, women are:
  1. Less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. In other words, traditional family dynamics persist -- so a woman my dream of running for office, but dollars to donuts she's going to raise her family first. That's just the reality. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a great example of this phenomenon -- she didn't run until her kids were all in high school or older. Interestingly, the career women in the Brookings' survey were much less likely to be married or have children than the men, and those that did were responsible for the majority of child care: 60 percent of the women, compared with just 4 percent of the men. Given that arrangement, which person in those marriages do you think had the time to seek elected office?
  2. Less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. Gee, do you think that has anything to do with number 1, above? I don't read this reluctance as being anything about physical limitations, but rather about concerns related to being apart from family, as well as the infringement on privacy that comes along with today's campaigns.
  3. Less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. Also related to number 1. Think about the PR challenges of running a woman candidate with small kids at home, and the questions she would get -- "who's taking care of your kids?" -- that a similarly situated man never has to field. Everyone would just assume his wife was minding the homefront. A woman candidate doesn't have that luxury.
  4. Less likely than men to think they're 'qualified' to run for office. Now this is fascinating but not at all a surprise -- the cockiness gap has been documented, ladies. According to the study, about one-third of men but just one in five women rated themselves as "very qualified" to hold elected office, while twice as many women (12 percent) as their male counterparts (6 percent) considered themselves "not at all qualified." Men were more likely to try for federal office, women for the local school board (hmmm...perhaps because it keeps them close to home and the campaigns are more manageable?). Now, women do need to own our part for this particular one, if self-esteem is getting in the way of our running for political office -- but truthfully, I think number 1-3 are much bigger barriers than this one.
So where does this leave us? For those of us lucky to have made it close to the roof, it seems like we're in much the same place knocking on whatever glass or marble ceiling we may be contemplating. No matter how far women have come, these fundamental truths remain self-evident and inescapable: women are the caretakers -- of our children, our partners, our parents, our communities. And despite the personal satisfaction we may take in these roles, despite the economic necessity of our performing these roles, women are consistently penalized rather than rewarded because of these roles. We are penalized in our professional lives in a society that has yet to adapt its corporate culture to value caretaking and support families, or evolved gender roles to allow women to relinquish a substantial portion (half!) of our caretaker responsibilities to the men in our lives -- many of whom would be happy to take on some of the caretaking if only they, too, would not be punished for doing so.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

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