Why are there so few women serving in elective office in American politics? The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help to clear away the myths.
The truth about women in politics: Female candidates win at rates equal to male candidates and voters tell pollsters they’d prefer to see more women in office. Yet women make up only 18 percent of the U.S. Congress; almost half of the states have never elected a woman to the Senate; and the U.S. ranks in the mediocre middle on several global indices of women’s political leadership—60th on the World Economic Forum’s measure, for example, below Bangladesh and Mexico, and just a notch above Madagascar.
Back when we could count the number of high-level female politicians on one hand, researchers proposed that voters’ sexism, or the lack of qualified women, or the media’s biased coverage, were the culprits. One influential study done in 1990 found that “masculine” traits such as “tough” and “rational” were “considered strong prerequisites for good national and executive-level politicians.” (The authors even advised women that they would do better “if they convince[d] voters that they possess masculine traits and are competent on ‘male’ policy issues.”) We know now that these old theories don’t hold water—so why is progress toward parity moving at such a glacial pace?
Long before leaning in and the confidence code became the rage, political scientists pinned the blame on a “gender gap in political ambition,” according to political scientists Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless. They and others say the problem is that women don’t want to run for office. Other researchers counter that we should pay less attention to individual the motivation of women in politics and more to the nuts and bolts of how electoral systems work. These five studies suggest that to get more women into office, we should be looking at a two-track solution: convince more women to run, and reform the rules of the electoral game.
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