The Washington Post

Why more women don’t run for office

FRANKFORT, KY - MAY 19: U.S. Senate candidate and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY), who has been called an "empty dress" by the opposing party, greets supporters while campaigning in advance of the state's Democratic primary. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Tuesday's primary races included a number of high-profile female candidates seeking national or statewide office. Some won: Alison Lundergan Grimes, for example, will now officially face Mitch McConnell in November's general election for U.S. Senate. Others lost: Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies, lost her attempt at the Democratic nod for a suburban Philadelphia House seat.

Yet either way they did something a new report released Wednesday shows how difficult it can be for women to do: run for a government seat. The report examines the challenges women face when they decide whether or not to run in the first place, the gender stereotypes and obstacles they confront both on the campaign trail and once they try to govern, and the reasons more don't seek higher office or think of politics as a long-term career path. In a survey of state legislators that was part of the report, just 35 percent of the female legislators who responded said they considered politics a career. And only 18 percent said they had seriously considered running for higher office.

The report was released by Political Parity, a nonpartisan organization working to increase the number of women in Congress and in the governor's mansion, with funding through former ambassador Swanee Hunt's grant-giving group Hunt Alternatives. The report combines both a quantitative survey of 171 female state legislators done by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting, as well as interviews done by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) with 60 female candidates, officeholders and congressional staff members.

Currently, women make up 18.5 percent of House seats and 20 percent of U.S. Senate seats, and are the governors in five states. Yet one of the report's key takeaways is that the biggest barriers to running for national office are not family demands. Rather, they're fundraising requirements and party support. While women in the two studies cited the difficulty of work-life balance and being apart from family while in Washington or on the campaign trail, they ranked well below other obstacles to advancing their political careers.

Instead, women in the studies focused attention on the fundraising demands for national or statewide office and the lack of support they received from political parties. While just under 50 percent of the respondents said their parties encouraged male and female candidates equally, roughly 45 percent said they encouraged men more. Hardly any said women have the upper hand.

"There was a fair amount of finger pointing at the political party structure," says Heidi Hartmann, IWPR's president. "It is very, very difficult to get named. You kind of need to know that such and such a job will be coming up in four to five years and need to start positioning yourself early and start getting to know the party's power brokers. They're just much more likely to name men and think of men."

Fundraising, meanwhile, was listed as the biggest barrier to running for higher office, with two-thirds of women saying it is difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively and nine in ten women saying fundraising influences their decision to try for a national or statewide seat. In the quantitative survey, the majority of state legislators — the traditional recruits for higher office — said they had never raised more than $100,000 in any capacity, far lower than the kind of money needed for a national or gubernatorial race.

But their concerns weren't about asking for money. The difficulty women pointed to was, instead, not being plugged into the right networks to make them successful when they try to raise funds. "You can learn to do the 'ask.' That's not hard," Hartmann says, noting that confidence was not an issue for the women she interviewed. "What's hard is having the list."

The data and surveys also looked at concerns the women shared over harassment, finding mentors, and the bias they're subjected to on the campaign trail and once in office. Nearly three in four of the women Hartmann interviewed said they had felt discriminated against in politics.

As a result, Hartmann says, these women face even more of an uphill climb than their counterparts in other fields do. Unlike medicine, law or business, there are no professional training programs in politics that consistently help bring equal numbers of men and women into such a career. Getting into politics "is a very informal process," she says. "It's very different from the way women have broken into other fields."

Her projections show that it will be 2121 before women reach gender parity in Congress. "That's pretty shocking," she says, "because [the estimate for when we'll reach] pay equity is like 2058. Getting more women into political office is a more diffuse problem we have to attack at many different levels."

Read also:

Former Ambassador Melanne Verveer on the challenges for women in politics

The science of getting women on boards

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.
Next Story
Jena McGregor · May 20, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.