“The Scarcer Sex”?

The current print edition of The Economist has an article that is substantially about women’s underrepresentation in politics.  The article can be found here..

In relevant part, the article reads as follows:

Might the politics of women change if more women were in politics? Even now, fewer than two out of ten members of Congress are female. For this, women have only themselves to blame. Plenty of research shows that women who stand for election do just as well as their male counterparts: they raise as much money, scoop up as many votes and are no less likely to win. The problem, according to a recent study and survey by Jennifer Lawless of American University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University, is that so few choose to run. Even though a record number are running for the Senate, women are competing in fewer than a third of congressional races this year.

In short, what women mainly lack is political ambition. Perversely, a decade of high-profile role models has done nothing to make a political career more alluring. If anything, the experiences of the likes of Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and the former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, appear to have produced the opposite effect. If the survey of nearly 4,000 well-qualified men and women is to be believed, the treatment meted out to these women confirmed the fears of others about venturing into the snake pit of politics. Two out of three of those surveyed thought that Mrs Clinton and Mrs Palin were the victims of sexist media coverage, including excessive reporting on their appearance.

I don’t really like the article’s use of the word “blame,” but in general the article seemed like an interesting jumping off point to talk about explanations for women’s underrepresentation in politics.  A quick check indicates that The Economist is correct that the study it cites to found that women run for office much less often than men do (the excellent study is available free online here).

Two of the factors they pay special attention to were the nasty and often sexist treatment women candidates face from their opponents and from the media, and the generally terrible lifestyle that candidates have to put up with (constant traveling and money solicitation, loss of privacy, etc).  The implied question with respect to those factors seems to be, “Why are women to reluctant to tolerate the loss of privacy and the nastiness that goes along with campaign culture?”  I wonder, though, if, with respect to those factors at least, there’s an alternate way to frame the question that might also be productive.

Instead of asking why women so rarely want to put up with the terrible stuff that comes along with running for office, what if we ask why men so often do?  I mean, I’m a white, cisgender hetero man with a law degree – in that sense, I’m perfectly in line with what our society tells us that a candidate is supposed to look like, and I’d probably face much less nasty and invasive scrutiny than a woman or racial minority or (Lord knows) transgender candidate would.  That said, the life of a political candidate sounds so awful to me that I’d never consider running for office, for many of the same reasons that the study found that women candidates don’t (like the loss of privacy).  As an intuitive matter, it seems stranger to me that so many men are lining up to put themselves and their families through the wringer of the campaign process than that women often decide to give it a pass.

So, if we’re asking instead why so many men are willing to run for office, what are some possible answers?  One might be that my intuitive sense that running for political office is an awful experience is just wrong, or at least wrong for most people.  Maybe campaigning, while rough on women because of the extra sex-based nastiness they endure, just isn’t that bad.

I think the more likely answer, though, is that men are simply socialized to pursue positions that mark them as “successful” to such a great degree that they’re often willing to make their day-to-day lives significantly worse to get such a position.


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