Running for office is still for men—some data on the “Ambition Gap”

FEBRUARY 5, 2019 - WASHINGTON, DC: Democratic legislators wore white to the State of the Union at the Capitol in Washington, DC on February 5, 2019. Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS

As the 2022 midterm election season gets underway, speculation is already mounting that it’s going to be another banner year for female candidates. Early reports suggest that Black women and Republican women are especially poised to make historic gains.

But make no mistake, even if 2022 is another so-called “Year of the Woman,” politics is still a man’s game.

At first glance, that claim seems to fly in the face of reality. Women in politics aren’t just running for Congress in 2022. They’re everywhere all across the political spectrum. The vice president and the Speaker of the House are women. Republican Liz Cheney is the face of the congressional committee investigating January 6.  Conservative firebrands Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are social media stars. AOC is a household acronym. And Ballotpedia has already identified 13 Democratic and seven Republican women as prospective presidential candidates for 2024.

But we’ve been studying women and men’s interest in running for office for decades. And overall, women today are just as unlikely as women were 20 years ago to express interest in running for office.

We started tracking people’s interest in running for office in 2001, when we launched the first wave of the Citizen Political Ambition Study—a survey of 4,000 “potential candidates.” These are people with professional backgrounds common among elected officials—lawyers, businesspeople, educators, and political activists. Among this sample of equally matched women and men, women were dramatically less likely than men to have thought about running for office. Whereas 59% of men had considered running for some elective position, the same could be said of just 43% of women. Women were also much less likely than men to express interest in running for office in the future. This was true regardless of political party affiliation, income, age, race, region of the country, even martial and parental status.

Ten years later, we conducted another survey of 4,000 potential candidates. By this time, Nancy Pelosi had been elected the first female Speaker of the House; Hillary Clinton had run for president; Sarah Palin had been a vice presidential candidate; and the percentage of women in Congress had increased by 25%. Yet, the results of 2011 Citizen Political Ambition Study were indistinguishable from the 2001 findings. The gender gap in interest in running for office was just as large—16 percentage points—and just as sweeping as it had been a decade earlier.

We’ve now completed the 2021 wave of the Citizen Political Ambition Study. Among this new crop of potential candidates, the gender gap in political ambition is virtually the same size as it was 20 years ago. If anything, it has grown a little—to 18 percentage points. Whereas nearly 60% of men have considered running for office, nearly 60% of women have not.

The gender differences go far beyond the general thought of running for office. Men are twice as likely as women to report that they’ve “seriously considered” a candidacy. And they are twice as likely as women to say that they’d be open to running for office in the future. (This is true whether we’re talking about local offices like mayor or federal positions like the U.S. Congress.)

Importantly, the gender gap in political ambition isn’t a result of gender differences in attitudes about the political climate or electoral politics. More than 70% of both women and men report dissatisfaction with the direction the country is headed. A majority of female and male potential candidates hold negative attitudes about various aspects of political campaigns, including fundraising, sacrificing time with their families, and the loss of privacy.

Figure 1

The roots of the “Ambition Gap” are deeply embedded. Consider how women and men with the same qualifications and credentials evaluate themselves. Whereas 36% of the men we surveyed consider themselves “very qualified” to run for office, only 20% of women feel that way. By contrast, women are three times as likely as men (24% compared to 8%) to rate themselves as “not at all qualified” to run. These gender differences have not narrowed since 2001 or 2011.

Potential candidates’ self-perceptions are consistent with messages they receive—or don’t—about running for office. Men are two-thirds more likely than women to have been encouraged to run by an elected official, party leader, or political activist. They are 40% more likely to receive the suggestion to run from a colleague, spouse, or family member. On this dimension, too, the gender differences are just as large as they were twenty years ago.

A lot has changed since we conducted the first wave of our study in 2001. The number of women serving in Congress has doubled (to 28%). Women’s organizations have made it a priority to recruit women to run for office. And famous female politicians, glass-shattering candidacies, more attention to women’s under-representation, women’s marches, and #MeToo are features of the contemporary political environment.

These changes and efforts have helped propel a record number of women into elective office, but they haven’t been sufficient to change broader attitudes about whether women belong in the political arena. They haven’t been sufficient to close the gender gap in political ambition. Still today, we operate in a world where people see men as candidates. And men see themselves that way. Significantly fewer women live in that world.

Until women are just as likely as men to consider running for office—even if they ultimately write it off as something they don’t want to do—then we really haven’t achieved full inclusion of women in the political system. And politics remains a game for men.