05.21.148:07 AM ET

Let’s Help Women Accelerate to Political Leadership

In Congress, women hold fewer than 20 percent of the seats. To encourage more women to run for office, we need to confront the personal, structural AND social barriers standing in the way.

In recent weeks, a vigorous public debate has swirled around the dearth of women in American leadership. One side locates the root of the gender imbalance in women’s internal traits, while the other identifies external structural factors as the true barriers to women’s progress. The question is especially relevant as we approach another election season for our vitriolic, hyper-partisan Congress, where women hold fewer than 20 percent of the seats: Why do so few women run and win? To use an automotive metaphor, is it the driver or is it the road?  

Strong empirical evidence backs the “driver” camp. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, in their new book, The Confidence Code, cite numerous studies that point to lack of confidence as the principal factor holding women back from professional leadership positions. “There is a particular crisis for women – a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes,” they say (The Atlantic). When looking explicitly at politics, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox have found that women are less likely than men to seek elective office. “Men have [political ambition], women don’t.”  

But what if self-doubt is just a symptom of a larger problem? Elizabeth Plank (in Policy Mic) focuses her spotlight squarely on the road itself, rather than the woman trying to navigate it. “Gender inequality can’t be reduced to mental health issues,” she writes.  She offers a list of structural barriers –  such as lack of paid maternity leave, elevation of “male” rather than “female” leadership traits, and racism in the workplace – that challenge women’s progress.  

This view puts the blame for women’s low leadership attainment squarely on a system that still harbors biases and double standards. Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles and colleagues have found that women are punished more than men (by both male and female bosses) for “aggressive” behavior, like asking for a raise. In political campaigns, women candidates often have to work harder and longer than men to raise the same amount of money. And in a new doctoral dissertation on “rational non-candidates,” Shauna Shames (2014) finds that women as potential candidates perceive higher costs and lower rewards than similarly situated men.  

For several years, Political Parity, a Cambridge-based nonpartisan program, has worked to understand and address the persisting gender gap in high-level political candidacies.  Why, we wonder, are men still so much more likely than women to declare themselves candidates, especially for high-level offices like House, Senate, and Governor?  

Our new research report, “Shifting Gears,” concludes that the confidence-versus-structure debate sets up a false choice.  Both the driver and the road matter. In particular, the driver’s perceptions of whether she will face smooth road conditions or endless detours and delays influence not only her route but also her destination.  

Drawing from surveys, interviews, and focus groups with 236 women in politics, we found that women contemplating a run for office are strongly affected by the costs and benefits they anticipate from a candidacy.  Surely women’s documented lower confidence matters when they’re deciding whether or not to run for office – but so too do the structural and social realities that shape their choices.  

Political parties still provide women far less organized support than men, making it tougher to raise enough money to compete. Women who run have to navigate a media minefield to present themselves as calm, competent, and credentialed, often facing scrutiny about personal as well as professional choices.  Those who are mothers worry about their children’s privacy, while unmarried women spoke about difficulties dating “in a fishbowl.” It adds up to a highly unwelcoming environment that reasonably makes even the most qualified and motivated women think twice.  

Getting more women on the road to Congress requires strong, consistent support. More mentors are needed.  Motherhood should be celebrated as a motivator for public service, driving women candidates to improve policies for the next generation. Candidate training programs must focus on the specific challenges of high-level races, especially preparing women for fundraising and helping them see politics as useful in solving problems.  

Our government desperately needs more women in leading roles.Women lead with a more collaborative style; it was no coincidence that women senators were at the forefront of the group that broke through the government shutdown stalemate last fall. But until we recognize and confront the complex maze of barriers women face when seeking public office – personal, structural, and social – we’ll continue to be stuck in neutral.