But studies of political ambition have often struggled to show that responsibilities at home affect women’s decisions about whether to run. For example, some research finds little correlation between household or child-care responsibilities and political ambition in their surveys of men and women in occupations, such as the law, that regularly feed into political careers.
Now, a forthcoming paper by Yale doctoral student Rachel Silbermann provides some interesting evidence of how women’s family responsibilities might matter. Silbermann uncovered a striking correlation: The farther away a state legislative district is from the state capital, the less likely it is that there will be at least one female candidate in that district or a woman serving as state legislator. Notably, these districts are no less likely to have women serving in local office, suggesting that these more remote districts aren’t simply lacking women who are interested in running for office, period.
Silbermann also conducted a simple experiment among a national sample as well as a sample of Yale undergraduates. The students were asked to choose between serving in Congress or the state legislature. One group was told to imagine that the state capital was “five hours from home.” Another was told that the state capital was only “15 minutes from home.”
Both men and women were more likely to choose the state legislature over Congress when the state capital was only 15 minutes away, compared to five hours away. But women were much more sensitive to location. Men were 14 points more likely to choose the state legislature when it was close by. Women were 28 points more likely.
Taken together, this evidence doesn’t definitely show that family responsibilities are causing women not to run for office. But such responsibilities — or , in the case of college students, the anticipation of these responsibilities — could quite plausibly explain why women may forsake a long commute to the legislature. And, as Silberman notes, her finding may capture only some of the impact of family responsibilities, because travel is but “one component of what makes political careers incompatible with family responsibilities.”