The Gender Gap in Political Ambition

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The gender gap in political ambition has been a topic extensively researched by political analysts and professors for years. The focus of this essay will be to examine why this gender gap exists and how it directly affects the underrepresentation of women who hold public office in the United States. This essay will explore the ways in which young women are politically socialized and factors in early childhood through high school which affect one’s political motivations. This research also seeks to analyze the different patterns of political recruitment and vehicles for political participation such as social media and various women’s organizations.

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The gender gap that persists in political ambition in the United States has seen significant improvement in modern society. However when looking at the number of women in the national legislature, a sum of 83 nations still surpass the US percentage. Many researchers point to the suppression of political ambition in young women to be the reason as to why we still lack women in elected office. Political Ambition can be defined in this case in terms of pursuit of public office, and the desirability of working as a public official. In the United States, advancing in electoral politics is a dependent on high levels of ambition, party competition and the structure of political opportunities. For all potential candidates, different types of ambition exist. Researchers have recognized and studied three different forms of ambition that appear to exist in US politics. These three levels of ambition have been labeled as either discrete, static or progressive. Discrete ambition can be described as a candidate running for one particular office, serving one term and then retiring from public office thereafter. Static ambition is displayed when an office holder seeks to make a long-term career out of their particular office and continues to seek re-election. Progressive ambition can be used to describe career politicians who aspire to attain an office higher than the one which they currently hold and climb the career ladder. Regardless of which category a potential candidate may fall into, it is important to note that the gender gap in ambition has persisted over much of the history of US politics and will continue to do so if we do not figure out how to raise the political ambition of women in this country. Political analysts have explored multiple explanations as to why this gender gap remains despite major social and economic advancements for women. One motivational explanation as to why women have less political power than men is that they are typically less likely to aspire or value the achievement of political success. A separate explanation for this phenomenon is that socially, traditional understandings of gender roles may inhibit women’s desire for political achievement because historically politics has been viewed as an inappropriate field for women to be interested in. (A) However, recent studies have found that the gender gap in political ambition is currently less about traditional gender roles and societal standards and more about the structure of our electoral system and encouraging women to gain political knowledge and efficacy.

The underrepresentation of women in US politics and the gender gap in political ambition are two inherently linked phenomena and the recruitment of potential candidates to public office is a vital part of closing this gap. Extensive research done on the topic has shown that women who are both highly qualified and politically connected are still less likely than men of comparable circumstances to be recruited to public office by all types of political actors. (C) One reason to explain why this may be is that historically the number of women in professions and political offices where candidates typically emerge from has been low. Occupations such as lawyers, business leaders, educators and others make up this “pipeline” that serves as a ladder to jobs in politics and public office. However, women are now more frequently populating these career fields which to many would explain why we have seen a rise in the number of women in public office over the last decade. This increase of women in the eligibility pool has helped put more women in office yet we still see in studies that the gender gap has endured through this change. Many believe that the main barrier for women pursuing elected office is the issue of incumbency. Incumbency plays a large role in US politics but even more so for women seeking to be elected because of the advantages that the already elected official enjoys. (B) An incumbent candidate often times has more name recognition because of their previous work in the office that they occupy, because of their experience they also typically have easier access to government resources and more knowledge of campaign finance. This is threatening to women seeking office because many times women are running races against incumbents that they have no hope of beating. One way that women’s organizations are actively counteracting the issue of incumbency is by strategically donating and assisting women who run for open seats in an election cycle, thus creating larger chances for the woman to win her election and putting more women in office nationally.

Actively working to change the recruitment process of politicians will have an explicit effect on the number of women in office, therefore changing the state of US politics as a whole. Having more women in office than ever before leads many to ask whether or not the gender of our politicians makes a difference. It has been frequently observed that many times, women campaign on issues that are considered to be “Women’s Issues” which are salient to women specifically, such as equality, family planning, women’s health and child care. When in office, it has been found that female officeholders are often more likely to act for women’s interests than their male counterparts. One possible explanation given for this is that oftentimes women are a minority group in their legislatures at both the state and federal level, thus being more likely to propose policies that develop equality for or improve the lives of women. (G) Other researchers have found that preferences in policy tend to match the gender gaps in public opinion, showing that female politicians are more likely to take liberal stances on topics of social welfare, environmental protection, public health and civil rights. For this reason, it is believed that women as officeholders typically stick to issues that directly affect them, however a study done in the Arizona State Legislature showed that in trends of enacting legislation women are finding more success than their male counterparts overall, even in areas outside of the scope of traditional feminist issues. (G) A separate study conducted in congress over four decades showed that female legislators were more likely than their male counterparts to cosponsor all types of legislation and also be much more innovative in their approaches. (E)

This innovation of policies that women bring to US politics is exactly why we should continue to get women in office and open the doors for young women to have a seat at the table. Different methods and practices have been explored by politicians as to how we can get younger women more politically ambitious and involved. One resource that my generation has been consistently exposed to and able to take advantage of is social media. Recently more researchers have been studying the effects of social media on civic engagement and political participation among young people. In the 2008 presidential election, then candidate Barack Obama used an online network to recruit campaign volunteers from across the country, this absolutely skyrocketed his campaign and revolutionized the way that future campaigns would be run. (J) Social media has been a powerful tool for politicians to connect with their voter base and constituents as it has grown. This new technology has also been very beneficial for those who seek to become more politically engaged, as it is almost impossible to scroll on any timeline on any platform and not see political content. While many believe that the younger generations or “millenials” are more apathetic and indifferent to politics, there has been a shift in the way in which they interact with politics through social media. Many young people are turning away from the traditional methods of civic engagement such as joining political parties trade unions. Instead they look to alternative approaches to actively participating in representative democracy such as protests, rallies, social movements or consumer boycotts, which all tend to be focused around networking. To many it seems as though the younger generations political identities and attitudes are rooted in the social networks in which they engage in rather than their social binds to their family, school or work. This new idea of “Networked Individualism” has been used to explain the shift in young people towards project or goal oriented political activism. (K) There is no doubt that social media is slowly shaping the way that young men and women interact with politics, however there has been little room for research on whether or not this will push young women towards the political sphere in the future, however I believe that it could a major factor in putting more women in office in years to come.

Aside from social media, there are other major keys to getting women in office for future generations. Women’s organizations that have formed out of a desire to see more women in office are making major contributions to women seeking public office all over the country. One thing that many of these women’s organizations have emphasized in their training workshops and meetings is the importance of creating opportunities for young girls to meet women who are currently working as elected officials and allowing the representatives to share their personal experiences of running campaigns, getting elected and working for their constituents. This is considered by many to be a vital part of getting young women to consider careers in politics because they are able to see women in office and come to know and see that women are more than capable of being elected officials. The idea of this practice is that when female role models are made visible to young women, they are more likely to express motivation to engage in political activity as adults, this phenomenon is called The Role Model Effect. (M) Researchers have found that this effect appears to be mediated through an inclination to discuss politics, especially in familial settings. The key to getting young women to consider a career in politics and believe that they are fit for the job is to make female politicians visible to them, whether that be through social media, television, or pop culture.

This is why I believe that researchers in the future may find a direct link to emerging women politicians and activism through the use of social media during adolescent years. For young people in general, social media platforms are places to express yourself to the world, whether that be through pictures on Instagram, tweets, or simple posts on Facebook. Social media is revolutionizing what it means to be an engaged citizen and many are using the popular platforms to read, learn and educate others. This manner of social networking that allows people from all over the globe to become connected has never been seen by any generation before and the younger generations have had it at their disposal for most of their lives. These platforms allow for major visibility of a multitude of women in politics. For example, nearly every state and national representative has some form of social media where their voter base and constituents can see what they are working on and offer their critiques, suggestions and praise. Social media opens up the conversation with and about the elected officials of this country and many are taking advantage of that. Therefore if the key to closing the gender gap is truly encouraging women to run at a young age and making female role models more visible, social media will play a large role in studies to come.

Following the midterm elections of 2018, the future of women in politics appears to be bright. Women’s organizations like EMILY’s list, IGNITE, Running Start, and many others are dedicated to ensuring that young women are more encouraged than other to explore the world of politics. Once we encourage young women to run for office, they are just as likely as young men to be open to a future in politics. Educators, mentors and parents must take on the responsibility of encouraging young women to be confident, assertive and support them in potential political endeavours. If this is done efficiently and urgently, future generations of politicians will have an equal representation of men and women in state and national elected offices. Once American politics become completely inclusive and genuinely representative of the population’s values and morals, we will see more innovative and beneficial legislation come out of the state and national legislatures.

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The Gender Gap in Political Ambition. (2020, Apr 30). Retrieved from