What Research Tells Us We Can Do to Help More Women Get Elected Outside of Election Years
While there have been great strides in the representation of women in US politics in recent years – including the election of a woman as Vice President in 2020 – women account for less than 30 percent of legislators in Congress. So, what can we do to elect more women to office in the US? In this call to action, Samantha Pettey looks at what political science tells us that stops more women from running for office and gives advice on how to start to overcome these barriers, including overcoming lower self-perceptions of qualifications, asking more women to run for office, and better sharing household responsibilities between men and women.
The United States has come a long way since women’s suffrage in 1920 in electing women to public office. One hundred years later in 2020, the US elected a woman to the executive for the first time with Kamala Harris now serving as Vice President. Seeing women run for President has become more common the last few election cycles. Further, the latest research from the General Social Survey (GSS) finds that 86 percent of people surveyed think women are as emotionally suited for politics as men—this is a substantial improvement from the 53 percent in 1974, when the question was first asked, so, we as a society have come a long way in accepting women in politics.
Yet, women are still underrepresented in American politics, at all levels of government. Despite more women attending college and becoming teachers, businesspeople, and lawyers (fields that generally lend themselves to political positions, but are by no means requirements), women only account for about 28 percent of the US Congress and about 33 percent of State Legislatures. Further, a new study from the Center for American Women in Politics finds women only make up about a third of elected officials in cities with populations above 10,000 people.
Research-backed actions you can take to help more women into political office
Perhaps you are someone who looks at the numbers above and want to see more women in office but are not sure how to make this happen beyond intentionally voting for women during elections (And let’s be real—there’s more to a vote choice than gender, so just because you want more women in office does not mean you should only vote for women). What else can you do?
Political science research has focused on these questions and related puzzles. However, this research often stops short of reaching the public, perhaps because it does not often seem as immediately interesting or relevant as when experts are telling people whether that extra cup of coffee (or glass of red wine with dinner) is `good or bad’ for their health. Yet, the field has important findings that individuals can use to change behavior in their own lives and influence political outcomes they care about. So, what are some research-backed actions that individuals can take to help more women get elected in the future?
An often-underreported reason why so few women are currently in office is that fewer women actually run for office, or – as political scientists say ‘emerge’. Research on women candidate emergence, and political ambition more generally, was spearheaded by two political scientists—Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox—in a 2012 survey using 2000/2001 data called the Citizen Political Ambition Panel Study Research and has been continued by many other scholars since. The field generally points to three challenges women face, at an individual level, when deciding to run for office: self-perceptions of qualifications, political recruitment, and household responsibilities.
Overcoming lower self-perceptions of qualifications
Research finds that women view themselves as less qualified for political office, even when compared to men with similar qualifications. This barrier is a tough one to overcome because many of these perceptions are based on years of socialization, or the process in which we develop our attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and behaviors as citizens. Most socialization is passive, and these preferences pass to children from parents/guardians, teachers, and peers—with parents generally being the most influential. Therefore, changes in behavior now might not come to fruition until the youngest generation is able to participate politically.
One suggestion here is to talk about politics at home regularly, and expose young girls to the idea that politics, broadly speaking, is gender neutral. Reading books with children about government, and women in politics specifically, is also a great way to expose younger generations to politics (this series for toddlers has been a favorite in our household). Talking about specific women in office is also a good visual for young girls, especially if those women serve in your state. Research finds a Role Model effect where young girls in states with women in higher office are more likely to be politically involved later in life. Reminding the young girls in your life that politics is for everyone, while pointing out specific women in office, might help this emergence barrier fade overtime.
There is also evidence that suggests getting young kids, especially girls, involved in organized sports can lead to more political participation later in life. So, if you’re not comfortable or interested in talking about politics and government to your kids, try getting your kids involved in youth sports or other community-based organizations. Evidence also suggests that the more involved parents are with these youth leagues, the more likely their children will be engaged in politics, and broad community engagement, later in life.
If you are not around younger people or wonder what you can do in the more immediate term, this is an area for critical self-reflection of your own views. Sure, you can blame your parents for how they socialized you to think about politics, but also take some time to reflect. Research finds that voters hold stereotypes of what a candidate `should look like’. This research varies by party and gender, but a common finding is that voters associate politicians with more masculine traits. Given we are all socialized by generations older than us, we likely hold preferences around politicians, that may be gendered and different than our other current values. Breaking down stereotypes is much easier said than done, but we can all think critically about our preferences. Take some time to reevaluate your own perceptions of what politicians `should’ look like and see if you tend to identify those traits with a certain gender.