Closing the Gender Gap in Politics Starts in College

On November 11, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox released their Issues in Governance Studies paper, Not a ‘Year of the Woman’…and 2036 Doesn’t Look So Good Either. While the 2014 midterm elections certainly had some bright spots for female candidates and overall female representation in government,  Lawless and Fox argue the factors for creating a real ‘Year of the Woman’ are still absent.  They write that, although female candidates “win elections at equal rates, raise comparable amounts of money, and garner similar media coverage on the campaign trail” as men do, the gender gap persists mainly because there are simply not as many women running for office.

“The relative dearth of female candidates is driven largely by the fact that women are systematically less likely than men even to consider throwing their hats into the ring.”

This may seem like a fairly straightforward explanation, but the source of the gender gap in political ambition is anything but simple. Using original survey data, Lawless and Fox find that the difference in men’s and women’s political ambition begins to diverge early in life—sometime around college.  Their survey results show that, although the same proportion of high school boys and girls say they would “definitely” be interested in running for office at some point, college men were twice as likely as college women to report being interested in a future candidacy.

“It doesn’t matter how we asked the question; in every case, we uncovered a substantial gender gap in political ambition – a gap that is clearly present well before women and men enter the professions from which most candidates emerge.”

Lawless and Fox suggest that different levels of some key experiences—immersion in politics, competitive experiences, and self-confidence—between men and women in college may contribute to this gap. They write, “…college women were significantly less likely than college men to benefit from the experiences and characteristics that spur and reinforce political ambition.”

Luckily, this reveals that a ‘Year of the Woman’ in American Politics may be achievable, but, as Lawless and Fox argue, it requires effort to engage women in politics during their college years.  As the authors conclude, “if we want to close the gender gap in political ambition, then organizational efforts to engage young women politically during the college years seem like the most practical and efficient way to proceed.”

Read the paper full paper here.