Why women (still) don’t run for office
By Christina Carberry and Casey Casella | December 18, 2018
This blog summarizes the research findings of a student team, Christina Carberry and Casey Casella. Carberry, who passed away recently, was passionate and knowledgeable about feminism and gender equality issues and was looking forward to a long career. This report and the associated paper are published in honor of Carberry’s contributions to the advancement of gender equality.
In the 2018 midterms, a record number of women ran in and won elections throughout the United States. Still, the country’s political representation is far from gender-equal. Amid pushes for women and other underrepresented identities to seek public office, the reasons that women run—or do not run—have been underexplored. That key information will surely help pave the way toward parity.
In 2016, we set out to learn the motivating and demotivating factors women experienced in considering a run for office. Originally a class assignment and recently published as a CWGPP working paper, we reported on women in the Minnesota state legislature. Minnesota ranked among the best in state-level representation of women that year, but in 2018, they actually lost two seats in the state legislature.
Even in an election year that was a boon for women, women still face notable challenges to running for the state legislature.
Four salient themes surfaced in our interviews and focus groups. Legislators, candidates, and candidate recruiters agreed that these factors influenced women’s decisions to run: perceived qualifications, being asked to run, family commitments, and gender-related barriers in the working environment including pay gaps and harassment.
The first woman legislator we talked to shared: “My immediate response was, ‘I’m not qualified.’ Which… I’m learning is nearly every woman’s first response.”
Even women willing to express their political ambition divulged that it took years, even decades, to feel qualified to become a candidate.
Often because of this first concern, it became apparent that many women needed to be personally and persistently asked to run. It can take a nudge (or several) from a trusted person to convince women that they are qualified. And since this “ask” plays such a crucial role in a woman’s decision to run, who does the asking directly influences who ends up running. One of our respondents strongly suspected that party officials in her district had overlooked her because of her gender: “I think that if it were a man with similar experience, they would’ve reached out to him. I think they would’ve asked him to run. …There’s no denying that they know where I live, and… I’ve worked for the party many times…” For better or worse, recruiters for organizations and parties wield power in the political system. Increasing networking and community involvement opportunities will help women rise in such power-brokers’ consciousness.
Gendered care-giving responsibilities—and perceived care-giving experience—around family and children certainly play a key role in women’s decisions to take the plunge into public representation.
The time and emotional labor required for childcare, for example, are well-known barriers for women across occupations. They face their own and their families’ expectations, as well as the public’s; some will question whether they are good mothers and who is caring for their children as the campaign. But we also learned that not having children could stymie a female candidate’s electability. One representative described her first campaign, in which she ran against a man, “They came out with pieces like, ‘How can we have her working on family policies and education when she has no children?’” It’s a double-edged sword: women are expected to have kids in order to be seen as “woman enough” to run, yet will inevitably be questioned about whether they are spending enough time with children. As several interviewees noted, male aspirants are not held to these same standards.
Finally, from the campaign trail to the Capitol, gendered aspects of the work emerge as distinct deterrents. Women must learn to deal with traditional gender norms at the legislature, widely considered an “old boys’ club,” amplified above the average workplace by the traditional and persistent legacy of male political power. Gender underrepresentation in the Legislature makes it an especially challenging environment for women to endure, as Representative Melissa Hortman called out in an infamous house floor session in 2017.
Public servants’ low salaries are also compounded for women, who, given the gender pay and wealth gaps, told us that the legislative pay was a major deterrent to their candidacies.
They didn’t always have the time, job security, and wealth to run, nor could they necessarily support families on the low salaries if they won. And those women who also hold other marginalized identities, such as being from a minority racial group or identifying as lesbian, can see their challenges multiplied. “It’s tough running at the intersection,” one interviewee reflected. “…I feel like I can’t fight for all of me. I can fight for one part of me every day.”
So, what can policymakers do to help increase the numbers of women willing to toss their hats in the ring? Beyond the simple and crucial point that “women need to be asked to run,” we suggest two policy changes to address the motivating and demotivating factors in women’s decisions to run for office. First, increasing legislators’ pay would help open up the opportunity to run for office. Our research was conducted in 2016, and since then, the Minnesota legislature has, on the recommendation of a bipartisan salary council authorized through a state constitutional amendment, increased legislator pay by forty-five percent to $45,000. This was a well-needed increase, and other states should follow suit (legislator pay varies by state and depending on the commitment of the legislative session) to attract more underrepresented identities. Our second recommendation is the provision of daycare services for legislators. Especially for younger would-be office-holders—both men and women—this would reduce the burden of family and childcare as barriers to political life.