Why don’t we have more women in Congress? Why aren’t more women running for elective offices?

Is it because women are less capable or emotionally unable to manage stressful leadership posts? Perhaps it’s because we can’t raise money or that we lack the electability factor?

In a new study, researchers suggest the low numbers of female politicians is due to an ambition gap. Women get less encouragement and have lower self-confidence in getting involved with politics, according to this study. If they are encouraged to run that gap disappears and they are just as likely as men to throw their hats on the ring. In addition, encouraging us at younger ages to get involved in competitive activities like sports can lead to a future in politics.

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t address the matter of women’s choices: it is possible that more women than men make work-life balance decisions that make political office less attractive, though many female elected-officials blend multiple roles with seeming ease. The study also blandly assumes that having a woman—any woman—in Congress is ipso facto a good thing, regardless of her political philosophy. Claire McCaskill = Kelly Ayotte because they are both women in this worldview.  But with those caveats, the study is worth considering, especially in light of the need for visible conservative women to combat the notion that conservatives are waging a “war on women.”

The study was a survey of 4,000 high school and college students. The survey probed whether they talked about politics, went to political activities with their parents, and had been encouraged by a family member to think about running for political office. Some 48 percent of men said they had considered a career in politics compared to 35 percent of women. Men were also twice as likely as women to say they thought about running for office “many times.” 

Authors of the survey think the key to boosting female engagement in the political realm is widening the pipeline beginning in those formative years by encouraging young women to take political science classes and get involved with mock trial.

The Washington Times reports on the study and interviews the researchers:0

“If we want to close this gap, concrete steps need to be taken,” said Jennifer Lawless, a co-author of the study who also serves as the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “One of the most obvious ones has to do with encouragement or recruitment. We’ve found that when young people are encouraged to think about running by parents, other family members, teachers, mentors [and] coaches, they are far more likely to consider doing it.”

Ms. Lawless, working with Loyola Marymount University Professor Richard Fox, said they found the ambition gap was small in high school but widens in college, where men are more likely to major in political science, spend time on media websites, compete in a sport and join a political club like the College Democrats or College Republicans.

Young women also have fewer female politicians to look up to as role models, said Lara Brown, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, who was not affiliated with this study.

While women may be less likely to run than their male counterparts, once they make the decision to enter a political career, they often match their male opponents in votes and fundraising, Ms. Lawless said, suggesting that women could succeed politically if they took the first step to pursue the opportunity to serve.

“It’s not that voters won’t vote for women, it’s that women aren’t running in the first place,” she said.

This study may be a bit naïve in ignoring how female candidates are treated in the press compared to male contenders.  Sarah Palin and conservative women often suffer attacks because of their decisions to enter the public arena. If Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the other hand, makes it to the White House, it will be in part because she is a woman.

However, it does point to solutions that are outside of the public realm. Too often progressives point to inequities as an opportunity for government intervention. Citing faulty figures such as the pay gap or gender ratios for given activities, they neglect to consider the choices that women make in career and work-life balance which affect wages for example. To remedy perceived ills, they push for legislative prescriptions.

At least this report places the power in the hands of parents to encourage their daughters into activities and and courses that can lead to a political path. Personal encouragement can do far more for women cumulatively than any government program because it changes minds and hearts of many rather than the situations of a handful.