Rep.-elect Katherine Clark, D-Mass., right, stands with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., after Clark posed for a photo during her ceremonial swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/)
In a special election earlier this month, Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) became the 99th woman in the current Congress. While this is a record, women still only make up 18.5% of Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
This is not because women can’t win elections.
“Politics is still seen as a male domain … Women and men don’t know that when women run for office, they do as well as their male counterparts,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “A lot of this has to do with the perception of bias against female candidates, even though there’s very little evidence of bias against female candidates on Election Day.”
The truth is women just don’t want to run, Lawless says.
She and her colleague asked college students if they have ever considered running for political office.
The results, published earlier this year, indicate a gender gap in young Americans’ political ambition.
63% of female college students said they have never thought about running for political office, compared to 43% of male college students.
“For me, the biggest normative problem here is not that women are giving politics serious thought and then choosing not to do it,” Lawless says. “It’s that it’s not occurring to them in the first place. They’re not considering it. They’re writing it off. They’re dismissing it.”
Women are less likely than men to be encouraged to run for office, more likely to doubt their qualifications and have different ideas about how to best make societal changes, according to the study.
Marisa Bayless, a 2013 political science graduate of Wichita State University, sees this at the collegiate level.
“I believe women are more proactive about fixing things and maybe believe they will get more done by working behind the scenes or in different areas of politics besides public office,” Bayless wrote in an e-mail.
Bayless, who says she is often the only woman at College Republican meetings, has considered running for office. Though she hasn’t ruled it out, she thinks she would prefer working for a campaign or in the State Department or United Nations.
“I want to get things done, and unfortunately, I don’t think Congress is where that is happening,” Bayless said.
While women exercise their civic duty in other ways — including working for charity organizations and voting at a higher rate than men — Lawless says something seems wrong when women comprise more than half the United States population and hold fewer than 20% of the seats in Congress.
Max Green, a 2013 political science and law graduate of Frostburg State University, says this is a problem because Congress lacks gender and age diversity in opinions.
“When our legislative bodies consider major social issues facing the United States, from contraceptive access to Pell Grant funding, they lack the input of youth and females,” Green wrote in an e-mail. “These two major political powers have become more important in recent elections, but are largely underrepresented within elected bodies.”
Green, an elected member of the Allegany County Democratic Central Committee, says pointing to female political figures as role models can encourage young women to envision themselves holding elected office.
These women, including Rep. Clark, help dispel the self-doubt women have when considering running for office, Lawless said.
“We do know that women are just as receptive as men when they have been encouraged to run for office, and it doesn’t matter whether that encouragement comes from a party leader, an elected official, a political activist or a family member or friend,” Lawless says. “We can also make it very clear that when women run, they are just as likely to win.”
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