We’ve all seen the barely changing statistics about women in politics: 18 percent of seats in U.S. Congress, 23 percent of statewide elected offices. But the problem isn’t that voters don’t want women politicians. As The Atlantic pointed out recently, women are coveted candidates because voters perceive them to be hardworking and less corruptible. The real problem is that not enough women want to be politicians. Only 26 percent of women candidates sought out the job themselves. And over a ten-year period, women’s interest in running for office actually dropped, whereas men’s stayed unchanged. We’ve seen the enemy of political parity, and she is us.
This is relevant right now because this is so-called recruitment season, the downtime in the two-year electoral cycle during which campaign operatives seek fresh names with which to populate the ballot. It’s arguably the most important time of election cycle for those of us who care about women’s representation in politics, because generally speaking, women don’t run unless someone asks them.
According to Running Start, an organization that aims to get more women elected to political office, twelve of the last nineteen presidents started their political careers — even if it was just a school board seat — before they were 35 years old. Perhaps with this stat in mind, Emily’s List released a video last week — a gender-reversed rip-off of the viral hit Kid President — that features girls standing at a political podium, delivering statements about how they are our future. While its feel-good, girl-power message will probably resonate with some potential donors, it’s hard to imagine it inspiring many girls or women to run for office themselves. Decades of “you can be anything you want to be” messaging to girls hasn’t paid off with a glut of women in the political pipeline. To the contrary: A recent American University study of 2,100 college students found that even politically active young women didn’t see themselves as future politicians.
Straightforward sexism no longer seems to explain the gap. “On nearly every issue tested,” according to Emily’s List, “a female president is perceived to be as capable or more capable than a male president.” New polling of swing-state voters finds that a whopping 90 percent would consider voting for a qualified woman candidate and 86 percent believe America is ready for a woman president. But the survey only asked voters about their response to a qualified female candidate. It didn’t ask voters to assess a man and a woman with the same level of experience. A different study, published last month by researchers Katherine Pearson and Eric McGhee, found that “women in both parties are more qualified than men.” Yet “women are more hesitant to run for office and are more concerned about their credentials and viability than men.”
This is why Sheryl Sandberg is exhorting us all to lean in. “In the developed world, we have an ambition gap at the personal level,” she said at the World Economic Forum in January. Every year women earn more degrees, snag more entry-level jobs, are promoted to more managerial positions. “But they’ve stopped making progress at the top.” Due to negative perceptions of “bossy” women, an expectation that they’ll still have to do most of the housekeeping and child-rearing, and the persistent glass ceiling, women set their sights lower than men when they envision their professional future. Applied to politics, the ambition gap makes for a compelling reason why even politically involved women don’t see themselves as future candidates — let alone future presidents.
But when I think about some of the most driven women I know, this explanation doesn’t quite hold up. These are women who are incredibly career-motivated in other ways. They do strive to be CEO or executive director. It’s just that politics in particular is not appealing to them. I push the women in my life to ask for higher salaries, apply for ambitious jobs, claim their successes at work. But I’ve never once suggested to a friend that she run for school board or city council. How, I wondered after reading study after study about women’s lack of interest in politics, am I supposed to identify who among my friends and acquaintances would make a good political candidate? My friends are educated, savvy, and feminist — not exactly the sort of women you’d describe as lacking ambition — yet not a single one has a shred of Leslie Knope–style interest in public office.
It’s partly about the money. We’ve all got student-loan debt, and entry-level political positions add a lot of work without helping the bottom line. Another aspect is perhaps the old Woody Allen adage about politicians: “They’re like a notch underneath child molester.” Politics, to us, seems like a puffed-up veneer of power. If you’re really hell-bent on making change within the system, you can probably do so from the boardroom — and make a little money while you’re at it. Local politics, the bottom rung on the ladder of public service, may not be the best starting point for women, anyway. Just look at Hillary Clinton, or any number of women who skipped a few steps on their way to the Senate or governor’s mansion. And if you’re the type who wants to work for change from the outside, chances are you feel better as an activist or organizer than you do as a cog in the two-party system.
Lingering sexism in the public sphere also makes it uniquely unappealing to otherwise ambitious women. “It’s almost like you’re going to the nunnery as soon as you start,” says my friend Katie Blair, a political consultant in Indiana who worked on get-out-the-vote efforts with women. “All your sexuality is gone — well, except for that gross Fox News sexuality.” If you display any sort of personality that pushes the boundaries even a bit, you’re instantly branded. Young men in politics don’t have to tread quite so lightly. “What i’ve seen with a lot of young women who try to run, they turn them into Tracy Flick,” she says, referencing the Reese Witherspoon character from Election, a specimen of unfettered ambition, qualification, and perfection. Tracy Flick, it’s worth noting, is also a widely loathed character, one to whom Hillary Clinton was compared unfavorably in 2008. For high-achieving women who already feel intense pressure to be perfect in every area of their lives, running for elected office can seem like chasing the Tracy Flick standard only to be scorned once they meet it.
“They’re gonna dig dirt up about you,” Blair says. “And with women, if you’ve done anything wrong ever, it’s gonna come out. Whereas men could do that in college and it’d be fine, with women that shit would come up and they’d be put through the ringer.” In the last election cycle, Krystal Ball, a 29-year-old Democrat from Virginia who was running for U.S. House, found her campaign all but doomed after sexy pictures of her and her husband went public. In contrast, male candidates like Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner are successfully rehabilitating their political careers after major sex scandals not involving their wives.
I asked Blair, who is 29 and has been an activist, community organizer, lobbyist, and consultant for years, if she’s ever thought about running. After all, this is a woman who recently posted a Facebook update encouraging others to ask women to run. “It wasn’t until I directly worked for a campaign that I thought about it,” she admits. Still, she’s only thinking about it. “I don’t think I’m ready. Maybe when I’m 35.” Just in the nick of time.