Women Must Run Early and Often for Office, Says Professor

May 5, 2009 — When the American public chooses between a male or female candidate for elected office, both sexes fare similarly on average.

But women are significantly less likely to run for office in the first place, and changing that fact will be one key to ending the underrepresentation of women in American politics, professor and former congressional candidate Jennifer Lawless said Thursday at the University of Virginia.

One way to do so is to encourage young women to consider running for office, Lawless told about 50 people – primarily female students – at a talk sponsored by U.Va.'s Department of Politics, Women's Center, Studies in Women and Gender program, and Center for Politics.

In 2006, Lawless ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island's Second Congressional District. She interspersed anecdotes from her campaign with findings from her research as an assistant professor of political science and public policy at Brown University.

Lawless, co-author of the book, "It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office," acknowledged the recent spate of election and appointment "firsts" for women: Hillary Clinton as the first to win a presidential primary, later appointed secretary of state; Sarah Palin as the first Republican vice presidential candidate; Nancy Pelosi as the first speaker of the House, and Janet Napolitano as the first secretary of homeland security.

Despite those individual success stories, on the whole, "things are terrible for women," Lawless said, with 83 nations now surpassing the United States in terms of the ratio of women elected to national legislatures. In the U.S. Congress, men occupy 83 of the 100 Senate seats and 87 percent of the 435 House seats. Seventy-six percent of state legislators are men. Women serve as governors in only seven of the 50 states and are mayors in just 11 of 100 largest U.S. cities.

Those ratios have come only after women made gains in the 1980s and 1990s, Lawless noted, but those gains have been leveling off in the past two decades.

To investigate what is keeping American women out of politics, Lawless interviewed 4,000 women and men in law, business, education and political activism – the four professions that historically have been most likely to lead to political careers.

Among those similarly credentialed men and women, about half had considered running for office, but women were one-third less likely to have given it some thought. And if they had, they were only half as likely to have done the basic prerequisites for running for office, such as discussing the decision with family and friends.

Three main barriers account for this doubly-circumscribed pool of women running for office, Lawless hypothesized: Compared to men, women are less likely to be recruited; women are much more likely to be responsible for child-rearing and housework on top of a career; and women tend to be more negative in self-assessment of their qualifications to run for office.

Women are 35 percent less likely to ever be encouraged to run for office, she said, and even those who have been are less likely to perceive they've been recruited. For example, in one of Lawless' interviews a woman recounted how her mayor suggested she run for city council and offered to help her campaign, but the woman still didn't consider herself to have been encouraged to seek office.

In contrast, one man explained how he had been encouraged to run for office when he was in an airport bar: He talked back at a TV news report, and the bartender said he was smart and should run for office.

Among the women and men with similar professional roles and responsibilities, women were 10 to 12 times more likely to be the family member primarily responsible for child-rearing and/or housework. For women with those familial duties, running for office is equivalent to taking on a third full-time job, Lawless said, and women are keenly aware that they will be judged on their performance in all three regards.

This inclines many women to defer their political aspirations until after the kids have grown up and left the house. A political career typically involves a ladder-climbing process of first running for local office, and then statewide or national positions, Lawless said. When women start their career later, they must move up the ladder faster, start on a higher rung, or end their climb in a lower office.

Only about 35 percent of women consider themselves qualified to run for office, and those who think themselves unqualified had almost zero chance of ever running for office. Men who had the same doubts about their qualifications still had a 50 percent chance they would end up considering a run for office, in part because they tended to cite having "passion, vision and leadership" as their main qualifications.

In contrast, when asked what made them qualified, women would list accomplishments from their résumé.

Women know they will, by virtue of simply being a woman, have to overcome the presumption of some that they "don't look the part." During her own campaign, in response to one voter who said she looked like a babysitter and another voter who said she was too short to be elected, Lawless began wearing business suits, high heels and makeup. She had to spend campaign time explaining why she didn't look like the cliché candidate image, which took away from the limited time she could talk about the issues.

What's the future for women in American politics? Neither political party is doing well at recruiting women, but various progressive groups are doing well at recruiting women who usually end up running as Democrats, Lawless said, suggesting that the Republican Party could benefit from similar partnerships.

Women are becoming better represented in the careers that traditionally are most likely to lead to running for office, but even women under 25 are still seven to nine times more likely than men to have family and household duties on top of their professional careers.

Women shouldn't let that challenge stop them, because they will figure out how to juggle three major responsibilities, just as they have figured out how to succeed in their first two full-time jobs, she said.

The best short-term solution is to recruit and encourage young women candidates, Lawless said. Campaigning for student government posts is great preparation for running for public office, and with 500,000 elected offices in this country, there's plenty of places to get started.

— By Brevy Cannon