The political gender gap isn’t just among voters. It also includes those they get to vote for.
Women are likely to continue being underrepresented in American government and electoral politics for decades to come because of an enduring reluctance to put themselves forward as candidates or consider a political career compared to men, according to a just-released study done of more than 2,100 college students across the country.
Citing the adage “you can’t win if you don’t try,” Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor of government and director of American University’ Women & Politics Institute, said her research suggests women will continue to be unequally represented in the halls of power because, even today, women ages 18 to 25 are 20 percent less likely to consider running for public office, let alone decide to become a candidate.
“We would argue that the gender gap of the last decade is not going away,” she said.
The survey titled “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” conducted with Richard L. Fox, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, concludes, “Given the persistent gender gap in political ambition, we are a long way from a political reality in which young women and men are equally likely to aspire to seek and hold elective office in the future.”
Ms. Lawless’ previous research had looked at the hesitance of older women already established in their careers to consider running for office. The new study is among the first to find the same “ambition gap” among college-age women and young female professionals.
Among the findings: College-age men report their parents encourage them to consider a political career at higher rates than their female cohorts; women are less likely to join organizations such as College Democrats or College Republicans; and young women were nearly 60 percent less likely to see themselves as “very qualified” to run for office than their more self-confident male counterparts.
Even among those who thought they might be qualified to run, only 53 percent of younger women considered political office a “viable option for the future,” compared to 66 percent of men who considered running for office. The numbers over time suggest the rising generation of women will not change historic patterns favoring male candidates.
Rae Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, said she has been encouraged by data showing that women are just as likely to win an election as a man in the same position, but she was dismayed by the latest survey results on the field of potential candidates in the future.
“I thought those days were behind us,” Ms. Chornenky said. “Obviously not.”
The report did show that parents do discuss political issues with their sons and daughters, but young men reported having more support and encouragement from their parents to run for public office.
“We need to make sure we are providing a broad venue of options to young women,” Ms. Lawless said.
Ms. Chornenky said her experience at the federation backs Ms. Lawless’ claim that women who are highly qualified to run for office and have political experience still report a greater need to be asked to run and then need substantial support once they take the plunge.
Ms. Chornenky said she also has seen many examples of women seeing themselves as unqualified for public office when men in similar circumstances did not have the same doubts.
Georgetown junior Alyssa Peterson, director of women’s issues for Georgetown University’s College Democrats chapter, said she did not find that surprising at all. She said that while her school’s student government often elects women and both the College Democrats and the College Republicans have women in leadership positions, women still need much more encouragement and support to run than do men.
“It’s interesting how even someone really interested in politics needed that push to get out the door,” she said.
Ms. Peterson herself has considered running for office some day, though she struggles with the same issues addressed in the study.
“I’ve always felt less qualified compared to others,” she said.