A few weeks ago, the New America Foundation hosted a panel on Women as Candidates, Women as Symbols, moderated by Rebecca Traister of Salon.com. While the event touched on a number of different issues about women in politics (and women as politics), the idea of women as candidates was an ongoing theme throughout the discussion. The panel was well-timed, too, happening shortly after the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic. The idea of women in high-powered positions was on everyone’s mind.
Again, the theme of entitlement came up as part of the conversation on why, when women represent 51% of the population in the U.S., they account for only 17% of Congress. GOOD Magazine put together this infographic showing what Congress looks like now and what Congress would look like if it truly reflected the demographic breakdown. The graphicBut why is from 2011, so the numbers may not reflect the special election updates, but it’s a big majority of men. And a big majority of whites.
Why Women Aren’t Running
But why is there such a gap? Well, part of it may be that men feel more entitled to run for office. But the bigger problem is that women feel under qualified and are under recruited for public service. Michelle Goldberg, writer with Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and Jen Bluestein, from EMILY’s List, both mentioned the research of Jennifer Lawless during the panel. Studies have shown that when women run for office, they win at the same rate as men. One of the best known, conducted by the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1994, found that sex has less to do with the outcomes of an election than incumbency. And when women run for open seats, they are just as likely to win as a man. But they can’t win if they don’t run.
Lawless, along with her colleague Richard Fox, have researched why women don’t run for office. Their most recent paper, “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” highlights seven key factors for why women don’t run:
1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.
3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.
4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.
5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.
7. Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.
It’s a lot to tackle and Lawless and Fox do a great job of breaking down their data. I highly recommend reading their analysis.
There’s so much great data to pick apart, but the recruitment gap, to me, was particularly striking. Women are significantly less likely to be encouraged to run for office by political and non-political factors compared to men. Lawless and Fox surveyed men and women in positions that generally lead into political office; business leaders, lawyers, educators and political activists. Men were more likely to be recruited at all levels of government. 21% of men who responded said they’d been recruited for a local school board election, while only 18% of women had been recruited in similar ways. Get further up the government ladder, to statewide or federal offices, and the gap widens. Only 16% of the women surveyed had been recruited for state legislatures, while 24% of men had. And while 10% of men were recruited to serve in the House of Representatives, only 4% of the pool of highly qualified professional women were approached for the same job.
Recruitment is important, because even though they were specifically selected to participate in a survey because of their perceived qualification, women are statistically less likely to see themselves as qualified to run for office. One particularly amusing statistic from the study was that even among the men who did not think they were qualified to run for public office, “55% have given the notion of a candidacy some thought.”
Who’s Making Decisions for Women in Washington?
Closing the gender gap is about more than just increasing diversity in politics. It’s about issues that directly affect women being discussed and voted on by predominantly male politicians. Bluestein commented at the panel that “the safest time to be a women is when Congress is on recess.” EMILY’s List recently put out a timeline of the War on Women. According to the organization, in 46 weeks this Congress has been in session, 38 of those weeks have targeted women’s rights. It seems nearly every bill up for debate has some sort of anti-abortion or anti-contraception amendment added. Recently, Senator Rand Paul stalled a vote on flood insurance — yes, flood insurance — in order to get his amendment on fetal personhood debated.
Sandra Fluke made the point that many of the issues that affect women have become divorced from women. Paycheck fairness has become about tort reform. The Violence Against Women Act, which has been reauthorized and expanded twice since it was first enacted in 1994, has turned into a fight against gay people. Contraception and abortion are repeatedly turned into religious freedom arguments, despite the fact that different religions have different beliefs about abortion. (And, incidentally, the clip linked, of Michigan state Representative Lisa Brown, became a debate about the use of the word vagina, rather than abortion.)
Increase Diversity, Get Things Done
It’s also about how things get done (or, in this Congress, don’t get done) and how successful the ultimate outcomes are. We can look at the business world for reference of how important it is to have women represented in positions of power. In 2012, only 20 companies in the Fortune 500 are led by women, the most ever. There has been a lot of discussion on why there aren’t more women leading companies or sitting on boards of directors, but there has been just as much research into how having women in leadership positions can positively affect a company. And the effect can be significant. Here on InPower Women you can find an impressive collection of studies and research on women, leadership and business. For example, one study by Catalyst 2011 found:
Despite a rough economic period, Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in board positions created a competitive advantage over companies with no women on their boards in the following three areas:
- Return on Sales: 84% advantage
- Return on Invested Capital: 60% advantage
- Return on Equity: 46% advantage
This study was conducted on financial results of 524 public companies, which demonstrated a sustained commitment to women in leadership, as measured by the presence of women on their boards for four of the five years analyzed. Previous studies in the series have also found a connection between gender diversity on corporate boards and financial performance.
Another really interesting study in the Harvard Business Review looked at collective intelligence and the number of women in groups. Researchers found when women are part of groups, the collective intelligence of the group rises. Anita Woolley, part of the team that conducted the research, added that social sensitivity is important in group performance and women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men. Having more women in groups leads to more listening, more constructive criticism and more open minds. Could having more women in the political arena produce similar results?
The Year of the Women?
In November, women will not be sitting this election out. More than 214 women are still in the running for Congress. If half of those women win, Congress will be nearly 20% women, a three-point gain. There are still primaries to come, so the number of women on the ballot in November is certain to shrink, but we could see an unprecedented number of women running for office. Could this finally be the “Year of the Women” we’ve been hearing about for years?
While it’s encouraging to see coverage of the important issue of gender disparity in politics, many reports set an impossibly high standard for women. Not all the women running for office will win (especially since some elections have two women facing off) and if women are just as likely as men to win elections, they’re also just as likely to lose. While we’re almost certain to see an uptick in the number of women serving in Congress, we’re still not getting anywhere close to equal representation. I think Stephanie Schriock, President of EMILY’s List, makes a great point when she says, “we like to think of every year as the year of the woman.” Let’s make every election year a year of unprecedented gains for women.
Have a Kindle? Follow This Blog!