This week, some discussions occurred about women winning elective office. In both Livingston Parish and next parish over at Louisiana State University, groups convened to hash out why it seemed women were underrepresented relative to other parts of the country (or world) in office. It seems particularly odd as not only do women who contest offices win at roughly the same rate as do men, but, in a study of members of Congress, women who did win more often, in terms of prior experience, competence, integrity, and problem-solving abilities, seem to have more of these qualities than do male candidates.
Additionally, among these congressional candidates, it appeared that men slightly less qualified on these bases or as qualified disproportionately defeated females, so (assuming the same applied to candidacies at all levels) some kind of “penalty” intruded on the process. Some of the investigation by the two panels mirrored the parable of blindfolded people stationed at different parts of the elephant, then asked to describe what they felt. Naturally, they came up with a whole host of speculations, all true separately but none close to identify the beast.
Thus, we find varying opinions that women’s faced this presumed penalty because of (1) traditional conceptions of women’s roles in society, such as competing demands of hearth and home and women’s suitability as powerbrokers, (2) too much emphasis on appearance, where if considered too attractive not taken seriously enough but if not looking feminine enough thought unsuitable, (3) difficulty of breaking into, especially in Louisiana, a male-dominated sphere through a transmission belt that began with personal relationships with existing political elites, and (4) differing self-perceptions, that women more often don’t see themselves in politics than do men.
To varying degrees, all are true. Yet these focus on the problem at its margins and remain uncoordinated, detracting from discovering a comprehensive, root cause. Even as these suggest tangential solutions – for example, creation of interest groups designed to encourage women’s political participation, or policies that reduce friction between serving in office and life’s obligations – they miss the larger point.
This leads us to Occam’s Razor, or the idea that the most valid understanding of some phenomenon usually is the simplest explanation. And, referring it to this question of why women participate less often in political office, looking to the research on the issue demonstrates simply that women attitudinally perceive the demands of the political world differently than do men. More than do men, they think the competition greater, don’t have as a competitive drive, see the risks of running as greater, have less enthusiasm to campaign, and need a greater spark to mobilize themselves to hit the campaign trail. Simply put, women show less willingness to put themselves out there to run, meaning disproportionately fewer will gain office.
Some of this likely comes from perceptions – from within and outside a woman – that politics is more suited to men’s strengths and interests, which have slowly diluted through the ages. That complex of attitudes philanthropy and policy may address with hopes of alteration.
However, some of it also seems to stem from biological sources. Researchers have measured that attitudes differ between the sexes on risk-taking, the need to compete, and assertiveness beyond that of family protection across a number of areas of inquiry, not just in the world of politics. In the past couple of decades, among political scientists has grown some acknowledgement that biological factors inherent to men and women do play a role in their subsequent political behavior.
Simply stated, all other things equal, women may less likely want to insert themselves into the political world in a way so intrusive as standing for office, at least in the current American political environment in the ways it apportions power, its party system (built upon the rules of the electoral game as encapsulated in the Constitution, featuring weak parties that requires take-charge candidates), and its rich associational life (which provides other avenues for political influence). And they have this lack of desire disproportionately because of innate characteristics of their sex.
So, even if policy changes could inject more women into candidacies, with more winning elections, this manner of self-selection likely means they’ll unlikely reach parity with men’s levels. Public policy initiatives that refuse to recognize this are a mistake.