On New Year’s Day, perhaps as a way to celebrate, the National Women’s Political Caucus endorsed Hillary Clinton for President. The NWPC, based in Washington, D.C., is a grassroots organization aiming to increase the presence of women in politics—well under one quarter of our nation’s politicians are women. Paula Willmarth, the NWPC’s Vice President of Political Planning, says Clinton’s nomination “would make history, inspiring more women to enter politics.”
Willmarth may be on to something: The ability of role models to inspire future generations has been studied for some time. In a 2006 study, for instance, researchers found that “over time, the more that women politicians are made visible by national news coverage, the more likely adolescent girls are to indicate an intention to be politically active.” And a 2015 study confirmed the existence of a “role-model effect resulting from the election of Speaker Pelosi and the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but the effects,” the researchers write, “are largely concentrated among young women who are Democratic and liberal.” They found “little evidence” that Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential run had any positive political impact on young women.
But the dearth of female role models in American politics is not the only thing that explains why more men than women tend to nurture political ambition. Another 2015 study, published in Political Psychology, titled “Power, Conflict, and Community: How Gendered Views of Political Power Influence Women’s Political Ambition,” points to another factor explaining the lack of women in politics. It’s not merely a deficit of female role models that stunts women’s presence in politics, the researchers found—it’s how women perceive a career in politics in the first place.
In their study, researchers from Miami and Tulane University asked 413 students—mostly female (61 percent) and white (91 percent)—to evaluate how well a career in Congress, among others, would fulfill a number of their goals, like acquiring power and serving the community. Students read a randomly assigned paragraph, written by the study’s authors, which characterized a political career as either affording power goals or more communal ones. Students were then asked how they perceived such a career.
Men and women believe members of Congress spend most of their time pursuing power rather than their community’s benefit.
While men and women who read the paragraph framing politics as a communal goal-oriented career both rated it as moderately enjoyable (3.66 on a 1-7 scale for men; 3.7 for women), women who read the paragraph framing it as power goal-oriented rated it significantly less enjoyable than did the men (3.89 for men; 3.23 for women). What’s more, two additional surveys, conducted online as part of the same study, found that both men and women believe members of Congress spend most of their time pursuing power rather than their community’s benefit.
That helps explain why women don’t see a political career as suitable or desirable, says Monica Schneider, one of the study’s authors. They perceive politics as conflict-heavy and power-goal oriented. But “at its core,” she says, “a political career is all about helping others; there’s nothing inherent that makes it about power, but that’s our perception of it.” The media’s focus on horse-race coverage might reinforce the impression that the political process is fraught with conflict and partisan bickering, which may, she says, “exacerbate the gender gap in ambition.” What’s less emphasized, she says, is, for example, that female diplomats are just as effective as men at negotiating, even while focusing on communal issues, like moderating committee discussions.
As a result, she says, the path to getting more women into politics lies in a sort of rebranding of the game itself—making it more apparent that a career in politics isn’t just for self-interested people and that it’s more than just conflict and aggressive posturing (though the coverage of the current election cycle probably isn’t doing much to help matters there). But could we approach the problem from the other end, so to speak? Rather than reframing politics as being conducive to communal goals, perhaps women may eventually find power goals more appealing.
“I do think women’s goals are changing—gradually, but they are changing,” says Schneider. “As women move into roles in general that [comprise more] power goals—law, business—there will slowly be a change in women’s interest. But that’s a very slow route to progress.” It’s important to remember, she says, that while women do tend to be particularly averse to conflict and power-goal careers as a group, there are still men who are averse to conflict and power-goal careers, too—they’re also not going to choose a political career as long as it’s framed the way it is. Which means the very types of people who might benefit society by going into politics—rational, diplomatic, with a sense of civic duty—are exactly the types the current framing of political careers is driving away, says Schneider. There may, as a consequence, be negative societal effects if the people most attracted to political positions are those who enjoy conflict and wielding power.
If, to attract more women, politics needs to be rebranded as a way to serve one’s community, where would that begin—at the college level, or younger? “That’s the next study,” says Schneider. “I’ve noticed there are quite a few organizations that have popped up encouraging women to run. What I’d like to do is study these organizations. Some studies have shown women often need to be asked to run (and they are less likely to be asked to do so than men).” Schneider says she’d like to know more about exactly when in their development young women get socialized into avoiding power-oriented careers. Congresswomen naturally promote political discussion among young girls with their families, though it’s not clear what kind of effect that’s had on young girls’ career goals, she says. “Studying this is the next natural step to see if we can replicate the role-model effect in a controlled laboratory environment.”
She sees two plausible hypotheses: “Is it that they,” female role models, “transform how we see the political career?” If that’s the case, says Schneider, girls and young women may be thinking something like, “‘Wow, she’s really making [politics] about communal goals.’” Or, Schneider says, “Is it that we see this woman succeeding and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think I could do that, but now I see this woman and I identify with her and I think I can achieve that, too.”
Kastalia Medrano is a writer from Littleton, Colorado, and has been backpacking the world for the last year and a half. Follow her on Twitter @KastaliaMedrano.