EDITORIALS

Why women tend not to run for political office — and why it matters for Maine

Former Sen. Olympia Snowe at a recent Fortune Magazine’ Most Powerful Women Summit.
Courtesy of Sen. Snowe's office
Former Sen. Olympia Snowe at a recent Fortune Magazine’ Most Powerful Women Summit.
Posted Sept. 04, 2014, at 10:58 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 24, 2014, at 2:55 p.m.

Women tend to be more conservative money managers, and they tend to think twice — or at least more than men — before engaging in risky behaviors such as criminal activity, smoking and drug use.

Not only are women generally more risk-averse than their male counterparts, gender differences are apparent among men and women in leadership positions. Women leaders tend to lean more heavily on collaboration as an ingredient of success. Female employees are typically more hesitant than their male counterparts to ask for a raise.

Now, research published this summer by two political science professors at the University of Pittsburgh concludes that women are also more election-averse than men. With all factors being equal that might influence a candidate’s decision to join a race — candidate qualifications, ambitions and open voter attitudes — “the fact that representatives are chosen by electoral means is enough to dissuade women from putting themselves forward as candidates,” the professors, Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon, write.

It’s not that women are less civically engaged and have less of a desire to serve. Women turn out to vote in higher numbers than men, and Kanthak and Woon find they are just as likely to volunteer their civic services — say, for appointed positions — when asked. But they haven’t joined men in the ranks of elected office at nearly the rate that would assure them proportional representation. Kanthak and Woon are careful to say women’s election-averse behavior is not the sole reason for this.

Take the U.S. Senate. The 100-member body has more women today than it has ever had. Still, that’s only 20 women.

In the Maine Legislature, the 47 women in the House and eight in the Senate work out to 29.6 percent of Maine’s 186 legislators. Nationally, 24.2 percent of state legislators are women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Maine Legislature’s female representation in recent memory peaked at 32.8 percent following the election of 1990.

So, what is it about elections, and why does this matter?

Kanthak and Woon don’t arrive at a firm conclusion, but they suggest running for election is commonly perceived as an activity in the masculine domain. There’s also the element of competition and social evaluation that could turn off some female candidates. And, they suggest a general lack of trust in the electoral process — a lack of faith that opponents will campaign honestly and that voters will make the right choice — and an unwillingness to lie could play a role.

It matters because the democratic process should produce bodies of elected officials that reflect the populations they represent. Prior political science research has shown legislatures with more even female representation enjoy greater legitimacy for the decisions they make, and the significant presence of women tends to keep ideological polarization from taking over.

There’s scant likelihood in the near future that elections to high-profile office — even to the state Legislature — will become more truthful and less judgmental affairs. In Georgia, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn suffered the humiliation in July of the leak of an internal campaign strategy memo detailing how the candidate should behave for donors and for voters. “I read every word,” wrote Mark Liebovich of The New York Times, “and my main ‘takeaway’ … is that a political campaign today is a soul-killing pursuit.”

As it turns out, men are more game for such soul killing than women. But what can we do to change the dynamic and encourage more women to throw their hats into the ring?

“Unfortunately, it’s going to take a little more than telling women to suck it up and deal in order to get them to run,” wrote Amanda Marcotte in a Slate article. But at least it’s a start to know what is likely to hold women candidates back.

 

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