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Women Are Underrepresented In Politics, But It's Not For The Reason You Think

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Spencer Platt via Getty Images
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Thirty years ago, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman named to a major party's presidential ticket when the then-New York congresswoman won the Democratic vice presidential nomination on July 19, 1984.

Since then, women have made many strides in the political arena. The current Congress contains a record number of women: 20 serve in the Senate, and 82 serve in the House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, women are still underrepresented in and less likely to run for political office at all levels of government, from local to national.

But it's not for the reason you may think. New research from the Brookings Institution, published this month, debunks the common claim that fewer women run for political office because of family concerns and responsibilities.

Jennifer Lawless, a Brookings senior fellow who also directs the Women and Politics Institute at American University, analyzed data from a 2011 study that surveyed a national random sample of "equally credentialed" women and men working in law, business, education and politics -- four fields from which political candidates commonly emerge. According to Lawless' paper, there were "no remarkable socio-demographic or professional differences" between the men and the women.

Sixty-two percent of male respondents answered that they had considered running for office, while only 45 percent of female respondents said they had. But family structure and family roles did not account for the 17 percent gap. The gap is virtually the same across differing family structures and levels of family responsibility. In other words, women with children under the age of 7 or women who shoulder the majority of household tasks were basically no more or less likely than other women or than men in the same situation to consider running for office.

"Family roles and responsibilities exert no impact on potential candidates' decisions to run for office -- and that is the case for both women and men," Lawless concluded in her paper.

Yet the perception persists that family is the deciding factor for women. Lawless begins her paper by noting how Chelsea Clinton's pregnancy announcement this April set off speculation that being a grandmother would affect Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. Vice President Joe Biden, another potential 2016 candidate, has faced no such questions, even though he has five grandchildren.

Female candidates generally are asked far more questions about family issues than their male counterparts, which reinforces the public assumption that women weigh family concerns more heavily when deciding to run.

But the burden of family is not why women are less likely to run, according to Lawless. The critical factor, she argues, is that women are less likely to be encouraged to run and less likely to be considered as a potential candidate when a position opens up.

"Political gatekeepers tend to recruit from their own networks, and those are men who tend to operate in pretty male-dominated networks," Lawless said in an interview. "So there's not much evidence to suggest there's any overt bias against potential female candidates. It's just that they are not the ones that the electoral gatekeepers are surrounding themselves with. They're not the immediate names that come to mind."

It is also a matter of negative self-perception and self-doubt among women.

"Women are very likely to believe that when they run for office, they don't do as well as men. There's no empirical evidence to support that," said Lawless. "When women run, they actually perform just as well on Election Day, they're able to raise just as much money, and generally speaking, their media coverage looks very much the same. But what we found was that women who are well-situated to run for office don't know that and don't think that. So they believe they're not qualified because they think women have to be twice as good to get half as far."

Those who recruit political candidates often share this misperception, Lawless said, and are thus less likely to consider women for political races.

She understands why many people still assume that existing gender roles undermine women's political ambitions.

"Women are still disproportionately responsible for shouldering the majority of the household tasks and the child care, and so as long as that's still the reality, I think it's an easy place for people to go and assume that because there's not equality or equity on that dimension, it translates into politics," Lawless said. "We're all familiar with a woman who does more than her spouse at home, so it's a very easy reference point."

Moreover, she said that family roles and responsibilities still play some role in political decision-making because they "make it far more complex and complicated for women to navigate the political arena."

"It just doesn't make them less interested in doing it," Lawless said, adding, "It's not precluding them from being politically ambitious, but it is to say they probably still have three jobs to juggle instead of two when they throw their hats into the ring."

Lawless herself ran for a congressional seat in Rhode Island in 2006 and noted that she felt she was treated the same as male candidates in her race.

"I did not lose because I was a woman. I lost because I was challenging a popular incumbent in the primary," she said. "It's important that we separate out political conditions from the sex of the candidate because otherwise we're just perpetuating this myth that women can't get elected."

"It was an incredibly challenging thing to do, but I don't think it was because I was a female candidate," she added.

The ridiculous suggestion that Hillary Clinton might not run for president because she is about to become a grandmother would imply that being a woman does make some kind of difference, but Lawless said presidential races operate under fundamentally different dynamics than state and local races and even other national contests.

Case in point: the endless speculation more than two years before the election as to whether the former secretary of state is mounting a presidential run in 2016.

"We've been obsessed with reading tea leaves where there is probably very little to read," said Lawless. "And Chelsea's pregnancy was just one more example of something we could glom onto and figure out how it was going to matter."

"The point of the paper was to suggest that not only is it not going to matter to her, but more broadly, let's think about how families should or should not matter. We've now reached a point where women have achieved success at the highest levels of very male-dominated professions. Is it that surprising that [family] is not really going to affect the political decisions that they make?" said Lawless.

In a Gallup poll published Monday, 63 percent of respondents said the U.S. would be governed better if there were more women in political office, but getting women there remains a challenge. Lawless thinks the role of advocacy organizations like EMILY's List in encouraging more women to pursue politics is important, particularly on the state and local level, but that the push could start even earlier.

"Most of these organizations are trying to encourage women who have already thought about running to enter particular races as opposed to plant the seed that running for office is something that maybe a woman should consider doing," said Lawless. "Get on to college campuses and say, 'Look, when you're thinking about your careers moving forward, you should be thinking that politics is an option.'"

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