Not a ‘Year of the Woman’…and 2036 Doesn’t Look So Good Either

Tuesday’s election saw some incredible firsts for women: Republican Joni Ernst was elected the first woman to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate; and Mia Love, a Republican from Utah, became the first black woman ever elected in the Republican Party to Congress. But when historians look back on the 2014 election, it will not be dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” and the next several election cycles will likely fall short as well, write Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox.

Lawless and Fox argue in the latest Issues in Governance Studies paper that despite historic gains for women, female candidates are still far less likely than men to run for office. These scholars point to survey data on women’s political ambition, where men’s desire to run for public office outstrips women. They also show that this trend begins very early in the socialization process. Although the gender gap in political ambition is almost absent among high school students, female respondents in college were 50 percent more likely than men never to have considered seeking political office, Lawless and Fox report. Essentially, when students get to college and “the shackles come off,” young women and men have much greater control over how they spend their time and what interests they pursue. When this happens, women and men’s interests diverge, dynamics that can reinforce traditional gender role orientations, assert these scholars.

The authors posit several theories as to why women have been less inclined to seek political office, including survey data that supports that women were less likely than men to participate in activities that support and reinforce political ambition. To reverse this trend, they point to opportunities for women’s organizations to engage young women politically during their college years. Only then can we all look forward to an election night where female candidates challenge the male-dominated political system and truly usher in the “Year of the Woman.”