Women’s History Month: Women in Politics

Wilkes professor off ers insight into women’s representation in politics

Dr. Thomas is an associate professor of Psychology and the Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department.

March is Women’s History Month.  While our country has made great strides toward recognizing and celebrating women’s contributions to society, gender inequity continues to exist.

One place where gender inequity is glaringly obvious is the political realm. Politics is typically viewed as a masculine domain.  Not surprisingly, the majority of formal political positions are held by men.  Although women represent half of the population, there has never been a woman president and only 18.5 percent of congressional seats are held by women.  This is disconcerting because we will not have a true democracy until all voices in a population are represented.

Why should we care about the lack of gender equity in politics?  In addition to helping our society becoming a true democracy, women politicians serve important symbolic and practical roles.  Symbolically, both men’s and women’s assessments of women’s capabilities improve when women are political representatives.  Additionally, women politicians serve as important role models, leading to greater interest and involvement in the politics by girls and women. Furthermore, women political representatives make laws and public policies.  They are more apt to favor legislation that addresses social issues such as peace, education, and health care.

If women politicians are so important, why are there so few of them?  I have been asked this question many times.  Those who pose it often inform me that women just “don’t care about politics.”  In other words, it is women’s “fault” that gender inequity in politics exists.  However, multiple research studies indicate this is not true.  Women vote more often than do men.  And in the 2008 presidential election, 18 to 25-year-old women were significantly more likely to engage in political activism than were same aged men.  Anecdotally, the young women I interact with are extremely passionate about making the world a better place.  They volunteer their time at food banks, medical clinics, and domestic violence shelters.  They rally others to donate time and money for causes to help those who are less fortunate.  Young women care deeply about the state of affairs in the U.S. and abroad.

Although, young women are more politically active than young men, it is true that they are far less likely to consider politics as a career path and to describe themselves as “political.”  Instead of not caring about politics, many barriers exist that prevent women from entering the political world.  Sexism and discrimination have been identified as primary obstacles.  For instance, media coverage of women who run for office tends to be sexist.  In fact, women candidates receive more attention for their appearance, personality and family compared to men.  These comments distract the public from learning more about important issues, such as a candidate’s views on policy issues and his or her leadership style.  In addition, experimental research has shown that when a woman candidate is exposed to sexist questions and comments, we like her less and we are less willing to vote for her.  Thus, sexist media coverage has real costs to women who are running for public office.

Traditional gender stereotypes and socialization pressures also limit young women’s political aspirations.  Boys are encouraged to be aggressive, dominant, independent, and strong while girls are taught to be submissive, nurturing, and emotional.  Masculine traits embody what we believe encompasses a “good leader,” thus many consciously or unconsciously think men would be better suited for political roles.  In line with these stereotypes, young men are more likely to be socialized by parents to consider politics as a career path.  Furthermore, experiences with teachers, peers, and media indicate that young women are exposed to less political information and discussion than young men.  And young women receive less encouragement from parents, mentors, and party representatives to run for office.  Finally, because there are so few women in positions of power, young women lack role models.  All of these factors contribute to young women having less confidence in their ability to run for office compared to young men. And young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run, even when they are established in their careers.

What can be done to encourage more young women to consider political careers?  Drawing awareness to the damaging effects of gender stereotypes and demanding that the media present candidates in less sexist ways would help.  Because young women engage in political activism and care deeply about helping others, reframing what “politics” means – in other words, highlighting how real change can come from serving as a political representative – would likely motivate more young women to enter politics.  In terms of becoming “qualified” to run, nonprofit organizations such as Ready to Run, teach young women campaign training skills and allow networking opportunities that boost young women’s confidence and help them navigate the political world.

Want to learn more about women and politics?  The theme of this year’s Women’s and Gender Studies conference is “Women, Politics, and Activism.”  It will be held at Wilkes University on April 11 and 12.  The keynote address, “Double Standard:  Media Treatment of Women Politicians and Why it Matters,”  will be given by Dr. Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director for the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Chatham University, on Tuesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. in the Stark Learning Center, room 101 Wilkes University.