Women, Men, and Political Ambition: Why Don’t Women Think They Can Run?

It is no secret that America struggles with women in politics. We have yet to elect a female president, and only 19.4% of our Congress members are women. It’s not just the federal level we have to worry about – there are currently only six female governors around the country, and only 24.7% of available statewide executive offices and 24.5% of state legislature seats are held by women. Although many view Hillary Clinton as our chance to finally elect a woman to the Oval Office, it won’t solve the overall problem. In fact, a female Commander-in-Chief is only a step – and may just be a single rung on the tall ladder we still need to climb in order to shatter the highest glass ceiling.

To understand why women are so underrepresented in our government, we need to rewind and ask ourselves the question – Will she run? And if not, why?  In 2014, 15 women ran for Senate across 36 available seats, and 159 women ran for the House across 435 available seats.  Ten years prior in 1994, only 9 women ran for Senate and 112 for the House. What will it take for us to see women running for Congress – let alone for President, Governor, and state-level offices – at the same rate as men in another decade?

The gap between the number of men and women in public office is tied to political ambition. A recent nationwide survey of adults conducted by Global Strategy Group clearly indicates that men and women differ greatly on whether they believe they have the qualifications to run.


Which do you agree with more – I am very/somewhat qualified to run for public office, or I am somewhat/not at all qualified to run for public office?

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Based on an online nationwide survey conducted by GSG February 19-23, 2016 among 801 adults.


Nearly half of men believe they are very or somewhat qualified to run for public office, while only about a quarter of women think so. The gap widens among college educated men and women, and those over 50 years old. In fact, non-college educated men believe they are more qualified to run for office than college educated women.


Could you picture yourself as President of the United States?

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Based on an online nationwide survey conducted by GSG February 19-23, 2016 among 801 adults.


Men are also more likely to be able to picture themselves as president than women. This is less surprising considering there has been much science centered on the importance of visual role models: you can’t be what you can’t see. In fact, a study highlighted in the film Miss Representation showed that an equal number of girls and boys want to be president when they are young, but by age 15 the number of boys who want to be president outnumbers the girls. What can be done to empower women to see themselves in this light when there are no examples for them to look up to? While many have warned of the perils of identity politics, especially in this presidential election, all other things equal—it’s clear having more women in office can help young girls feel emboldened to take on the role themselves.


Which of the following would be the biggest challenge facing you if you were to run for public office?

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Based on an online nationwide survey conducted by GSG February 19-23, 2016 among 801 adults.


What is holding women back? Although there are some differences in what men and women perceive to be the biggest challenge that may face them if they were to run for office, the discrepancies are not overwhelming. Men are actually more likely than women to say that fundraising, having their background and private life examined, dealing with the media, and spending less time with friends and family are the biggest challenges to face if they were to run for office – challenges that are often thought to be bigger barriers for women. Overall, there does not seem to be a single challenge that is responsible for less women running for office. However, it is worth noting that the use of negative attacks that has become “politics as usual” is hurting women – who are more likely than men to cite this as the biggest challenge they would face if they ran for office – more than men.

What is more, although women graduate college and earn advanced degrees at a higher rate than men, and nearly half of non-profits and advocacy organizations are run by women, it is continually reinforced to us by society that we should not vocalize our ambition, and thus we lack the confidence that is rightfully ours to say, “I am qualified.” That is why there are organizations like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Off the Sidelines, whose mission is to empower women and girls to make their voices heard through different types of engagement, including voting, issue advocacy, and (you guessed it!) running for elected office. Senator Gillibrand and Off the Sidelines deliver the message that, “when women embrace the fact that their voices matter…they can make all the difference.”

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to strive for a government that is representative of the people. On average, women need to be asked seven times more than men before they decide to run for office, despite being equally qualified and electable. Men and women alike must applaud the women who step up to run for public office at any level, and we should seek to encourage our mothers, sisters, friends, and daughters to say, “I can run. I should run. I will run.” Until women – including black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ women – are empowered by society to take that step, inequality is destined to persist on Capitol Hill and in public offices across America.


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