Limits and ambitions

A new report says we don’t have more women in politics because they just aren’t that interested:

Extensive research shows that when women run for office, they perform just as well as men. Yet women remain severely under-represented in our political institutions. In this report, we argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.

“Ambition” is a bit of a misleading way to put it. Here’s how the study’s authors break it down:

We link this persistent gender gap in political ambition to several factors. Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are “qualified� to run for office. And they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.

Most of these things, in my mind, just go back to the fact that we have a fundamentally unfeminist society. Women are saddled with more family obligations, and we have a government that has been unwilling to step in and lighten the load. Girls are bombarded with the message, from a young age, that they should aspire to be pretty, not powerful. (Or that pretty is powerful.) So is it any wonder that grown women doubt their qualifications? Also, saying that women are less likely than men to “be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign” fails to note that, compared to white men, the campaign trail is a helluva lot more rigorous for women. No wonder they’re less likely than men to “perceive a fair political environment.”
But to me, none of that speaks to ambition. Within the social constraints that are placed on women by a sexist society, how can you expect them to sign up for elections in droves? The two parties are basically boys’ clubs, the media is completely misogynist, there is virtually no government support for working mothers, and women get the message from a very young age that they have to work twice as hard and be twice as good to expect half as much. It’s hard to separate out all this junk and figure out how many women really do harbor higher career ambitions. And how many said they don’t because of these very unfeminist realities about our society. “Women may now think about running for office, but they probably think about it while they are making the bed,” as Beloit College political scientist Georgia Duerst-Lahti put it. For example, would it really be fair to call a single mom with three kids and two jobs “not ambitious” because she doesn’t realistically think she can run for political office? Please.
These are big-picture problems — ones that feminists are working to solve, of course — but huge and pervasive problems nevertheless. Do these things keep women out of politics? Undoubtedly. But are they a problem of ambition? No. I’d wager a guess that if you reform the media, create better support systems for working mothers, and if the two parties actually made an effort to recruit women candidates, we’d see a huge spike in “ambition.”
Until that grand day, of course, we need a backup plan. So I refer you to the She Should Run campaign, which encourages people to push women to run for office, even in this imperfect world. The good news is when you actually ask women to run, they say yes at rates similar to men. I guess they suddenly discover they had ambitions, after all.
(So after I’d written all this I saw that Echidne had a wonderful post along the same lines. Check it out. Great feminist minds…)

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