Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?

Richard L. Fox and
Richard L. Fox Richard L. Fox is Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Admissions, Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, Loyola Marymount University.
Jennifer L. Lawless
Jennifer L. Lawless
Jennifer L. Lawless Former Brookings Expert, Commonwealth Professor of Politics - University of Virginia

May 19, 2008

Executive Summary

Extensive research shows that when women run for office, they perform just as well as men. Yet women remain severely under-represented in our political institutions. In this report, we argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.

Our results are based on the Citizen Political Ambition Panel Study, a research project we have been conducting over the course of the last seven years. In 2001, we surveyed more than 3,700 lawyers, business leaders and executives, educators, and political activists about whether they ever considered running for office. We re-surveyed more than 2,000 of these individuals in 2008. Because we surveyed well-matched pools of men and women who work in professions that most typically precede a political candidacy, we can provide the first comprehensive investigation of the process by which women and men decide to enter the electoral arena. We can also determine the extent to which political ambition has changed over time.

We offer clear and compelling evidence that women, even in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment, are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elected office. These results hold regardless of age, partisan affiliation, income and profession. In addition, despite the historic events of the last seven years – such as the war in Iraq, frustration with the political process, and the emergence of a more diverse group of political candidates and leaders – overall levels of political ambition for women and men have remained fairly constant. In 2008, men continue to enjoy more comfort, confidence and freedom than women when thinking about running for office.

We link this persistent gender gap in political ambition to several factors. Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are “qualified” to run for office. And they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.

In the end, this report documents how far from gender parity we remain, as well as the barriers and obstacles we must still overcome in order to achieve it. But our results also offer guidance to organizations and individuals seeking to increase the number of women in elected positions. Recruiting women candidates, disseminating information about the electoral environment and working with women to quell their anxiety about campaigning can help narrow the gender gap in political ambition and increase women’s numeric representation.