March 4 2013

Election Aversion is a Girl Thing

Sabrina Schaeffer

There’s lots of interest from center-left groups like She Should Run to increase the number of women in elected office.  It’s well-known that despite women’s gains educationally and professionally, they still lag behind men in the political arena. For instance women only hold 18% of Congressional seats, comprise 24% of state legislatures, and maintain 5 gubernatorial seats.

While I frequently argue that one’s political values outweigh the importance of one’s gender, I firmly recognize that the genders are different and that men and women likely bring different strengths and qualities to the table. And, therefore, encouraging more women to run is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as they represent one's core belief system.

But to better help women achieve public office, we must first understand what is really keeping women out of politics? Is it simply biased discrimination? Is it biology? Is it the fact that so many other opportunities are available to women today? Or, is it that public office simply isn’t for everyone?

The political science literature recognizes a host of different gender differences – including communication style, willingness to negotiate, risk aversion, competitive drive, etc. -- may help explain the underrepresentation of women in public office. Now two professors out of the University of Pittsburgh have conducted a new political science experiment, which finds women are, in fact, more “election averse” than men (h/t The Monkey Cage) and the reason may have more to do with the modern campaign than women's skillsets. The authors conclude (bold added for emphasis):

“elections themselves – rather than differences in ability or relative confidence – dissuade women from entering the fray. Specifically, we find that both men and women volunteer to be the representative of a group at equal rates, and they are equally responsive to task ability, provided that the selection of the representative does not involve an election. However, when selection involves an election, women’s willingness to represent decreases substantially, and we show that the decline in candidate entry cannot be attributed to differences in ability, confidence about relative ability, or risk aversion. Instead, our findings indicate twin concerns: Campaigns are at once too costly and too noisy affairs. The din of the typical campaign environment and the arduousness of properly communicating their qualifications to voters renders the whole process an insufficiently worthwhile undertaking. It is bearing the costs of running for election, coupled with a campaign setting in which low-information voters cannot properly discern women’s qualifications, that impedes women from entering the electoral arena.”

While we would likely all prefer to find out that those individuals who are the most qualified are the individuals most likely to seek out office; but the research finds this is not always the case. Unfortunately, “the noisiness of the campaign environment” – the 24-hour news cycle, the attention given to ones family, the inattention to the issues that matter, candidates willingness to lie – that may be the real reason women are staying out of the political fray.

"Women know they are qualified," the authors conclude. "But what they may be unsure about is how to convince voters of that and how to do that convincing in a more cost-effective manner…If women know they will be judged on their true qualifications and they are not worried about the burdens and the hefty tolls that campaigning extracts, election aversion disappears. The truth, we find, convinces women to run.”

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