It’s no longer a question of biased attitudes or entrenched resistance — at least, not on the part of voters or the political establishment.
“Study after study finds that, when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. No differences emerge in women and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success,” wrote Lawless and Fox.
What is different, these and other researchers have found, is the attitude that women have about making a career of politics.
It has long been true that women tend to start their political careers at a later age, often after their kids are grown; that they usually do not consider running unless they are asked, which is less likely to happen to women than men; and that they are more likely to be drawn in by working on local issues — fixing their schools, even getting a four-way stop sign on their streets — than by long-standing ambition, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Lawless and Fox surveyed nearly 4,000 plausible male and female candidates — lawyers, educators, activists and the like. They found that women are more likely than men to believe that the electorate is biased against female candidates and that they are less confident in their own qualifications to run. While 35 percent of the men they surveyed pronounced themselves “very qualified” for office, only 22 percent of the similarly situated women did. Also telling: Of those who considered themselves completely unqualified, 55 percent of the men reported that they had, nonetheless, given the idea of running some thought; only 39 percent of women had.
Political scientists also note that there are far fewer women than once expected in the pipeline to higher office. Term limits in state legislatures, for instance, were once thought to be a boon to women, because they would weaken the power of incumbency.
Instead, because the gains for women have been so slow, the opposite has happened. A number of studies show more women have been forced to leave office than have been elected because of term-limit laws.
About 150 women, most of them running for or thinking about running for offices from school board to Congress, gathered this month on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, N.J., for what the Center for American Women and Politics calls its “Ready to Run” program.
It amounted to a political boot camp, where they got advice on everything from how to build a fundraising network to posture and makeup tips for television interviews.
They were told that they needed to get their message down to three or four key points. They were coached that — as distasteful as they might find it — going negative against their opponent is usually necessary, especially for those who are trying to take out an incumbent.
Lawless and Fox’s research is only the latest to suggest that women are more likely to be deterred from running by its more disagreeable aspects: having to ask people for money and knock on their doors, the loss of privacy for themselves and their families, and, particularly, the potential of having to mount an attack strategy.
Female candidates’ platforms also have to be far broader than the “women’s issues” that brought many of their predecessors into politics.
In this environment, “I don’t care what you’re running for right now — dogcatcher, mayor, city council, whatever — you need to have an economic plan,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the gathering at Rutgers.
While women have not reached anything close to parity in elected office, they are no longer the rarities they once were either. They will not be given the benefits of the enormous doubts that the electorate now has about the entire political system.
“Voters no longer grant women automatically the mantle of change,” Lake warned them. “They are beginning to believe women can be as much a part of the problem as men, so you need to grab the mantle of change.”
All of those things were good advice for anyone running, but it was clear that these candidates are facing some questions their male counterparts haven’t.
One woman running for school board in New York wanted to know how she should respond when voters ask who would be taking care of her small children if she is elected.
As she put it: “I know what they are getting at when they say, ‘Why are you here?’ ”
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.