American University Prof. lectures on women in politics

By Kathrine Esten

Daily Collegian/Katherine Mayo

American University professor of government Jennifer Lawless challenged prevailing views on women in politics in a lecture on Thursday.

Entitled, “Why Women Don’t Run for Office and What Happens When They Do,” the lecture argued that the declining novelty of women in politics, coupled with the polarization of the Republican and Democratic parties, has left little space for the sex of a candidate to influence modern campaigns.

“Studies have found time and again that female incumbents win just as often as male incumbents do. Female challengers lose just as often as male challengers do,” Lawless said. “Whether you have a D or an R in front of your name is far more important than if you have a Y chromosome or not.”

Based on an in-depth analysis of the 2010 and 2014 congressional elections, Lawless asserted that male and female candidates for the House of Representatives had similar campaign messages, received similar media coverage, and received similar feedback from district voters.

Even if the gender bias doesn’t exist on Election Day, Lawless explained that the percentage of women in office has plateaued in the last 10 election cycles.

“Women are significantly underrepresented in U.S. politics. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the federal level, state level, or even municipal offices,” Lawless said. “The overwhelming number of our officials are men.”

Two possible explanations cited by Lawless were that originally, women were not as prominent in fields associated with political careers, such as law or business. She continued by saying that running against incumbents, a majority of whom are men, is statistically harder than running for open seats.

“In 2014, 49 percent of Americans polled said that Congress would be more effective, and more efficient if every single member was replaced by a random person walking down the street,” Lawless said. “That election season, 97 percent of incumbents were reelected and sent back to do their jobs.”

However, Lawless primarily credited the lack of representation to the lack of recruitment for women in office. In what she called a “gender gap in political ambition,” Lawless explained that women were 50 percent less likely than men to consider running for office.

In looking for the cause behind this “gender gap,” Lawless argued that because women and men have very different ideas of what it means to be qualified for office, many therefore feel differently about political involvement.

“When asked for what makes a candidate qualified, women would often name very specific credentials, like multiple degrees, or a career in public service. Men would usually name things like passion and vision.” Lawless explained, saying women, as a result of their concept of the requirements to be a qualified candidate, are twice as likely as men to believe they are not at all qualified to run for office.

“Among 13 to 17 year olds, there was no gender gap,” Lawless said, “So what we’re seeing is the ‘freshman dorm’ affect. You step foot on a college campus, and women’s [political] ambition stays the same, and men’s go through the roof and they decide they can conquer the world and achieve anything they ever want.”

Grace Hall, a freshman computer science major, questioned the disproportionality between women in the U.S. and their participation in politics. “Increasing representation is the first step toward equality and closing the gender gap,” Hall said.

Lawless presented a study that showed the United States is 101st in the world in the percentage of women serving in the national legislature.

“I should highlight that when I started studying in politics [in 1999] the United States was ranked 57th in the world,” Lawless said, “The rate at which the rest of the world has been catching on is faster than in the United States.”

The lecture was sponsored by UMass Women in Leadership (UWiL) and the Social Science Matters Lecture series. Michelle Goncalves, the founder of UWiL and director of special projects in the Office of the Chancellor, said that the lecture was very timely, after the past election.

Goncalves said, “A public institution like ours has a responsibility to encourage and train public leaders.”

Jennifer Lawless is professor of government at American University, where she is also the Director of the Women & Politics Institute. Professor Lawless’ research, which has been supported by the National Science Foundation, focuses on representation, political ambition, and gender in the American electoral process. In 2006, Lawless unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the democratic primary in Rhode Island’s 2nd congressional district.

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected]