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Why don’t women run for office? Less confidence and encouragement


Well-qualified women are less likely than their male counterparts to consider running for public office because women do not perceive themselves as qualified and do not receive as much encouragement as men, according to a new study by political scientists at Brown University and Union College.

Despite the fact that women perform as well as men in terms of campaign fundraising and vote totals, they remain severely under-represented in U.S. political institutions. Gender disparities are apparent at the national, state and local levels: Men account for 86 percent of the members of Congress, 86 percent of state governors, 88 percent of big-city mayors, and 78 percent of state legislators.

“If women win elections at equal rates as men, why do there remain so few women candidates?” asked Jennifer L. Lawless, assistant professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. “Gender plays a substantial role in the candidate emergence process.”

Lawless and Richard L. Fox, associate professor of political science at Union College, surveyed and spoke to more than 3,700 lawyers, business leaders, executives, educators and political activists during the last two years – women and men who work in professions that typically precede a political candidacy. The Citizen Political Ambition Study was the first broad-based national sample of potential candidates for all levels of public office.

The impact of self-perceived qualifications on a woman’s decision to run was nearly double that of men. Surprisingly, although many of those surveyed had attained success in male-dominated professions, women were twice as likely as men to rate themselves “not at all qualified” to run for office. Men were about two-thirds more likely than women to consider themselves “qualified” or “very qualified” to run for office.

Women were also significantly less likely than men to think they would win their first race. Only 25 percent of female potential candidates, compared to 37 percent of males, thought that an electoral victory would be “likely” or “very likely.”

Not only did they not think themselves qualified, women received less encouragement to run than men. Thirty-two percent of women, compared to 43 percent of men, received the suggestion to run for office from either someone involved in the political arena or within their personal life. Such encouragement often more than doubled the likelihood of considering a candidacy.

Across all factors – age, party affiliation, income and profession – women were significantly less likely than men to express interest in seeking public office. Among women, there were some interesting differences:
  • Women with higher incomes were more likely to consider a candidacy than women with lower incomes. Men were as likely to consider running for office across all income levels.

  • Women with more responsibilities for household tasks were less interested in holding office. Forty-eight percent of the women whose partner was responsible for the majority of the household labor had considered running for office, compared to 33 percent of women who were responsible for the majority of tasks. There was no difference for men.

  • When women did think of running, they were more likely to be interested in local-level politics. Just one office attracted substantially more interest from women than men: the local school board.

“These results suggest that we are a long way from a political reality in which women and men are equally likely to aspire to attain high-level elective office,” said the researchers.

Yet the findings offer some direction. The number of women who said they would definitely be interested in running for office “someday” was equal to that of men. Women also viewed the activities associated with campaigning as positively as men. Those included such things as attending fundraisers, dealing with party officials, going door-to-door to meet constituents, dealing with the press, and devoting time to running for office.

The research was funded by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, the Center for American Women and Politics, the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, Union College, and Stanford University.

Many of these results are included in a forthcoming article “Entering the Arena? Gender and the Decision to Run for Office,” in the April 2004 American Journal of Political Science. The article is currently available online at

Kristen Cole | Brown University
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