In 2016, the United States Census reported that women represented 50.8% of the U.S. population. Women of color, defined in this article as women who do not identify as White, make up roughly 38% of the female population in the United States. Despite this significant showing, the Center of American Women and Politics reports that American women, especially women of color, continue to be vastly underrepresented in political office throughout the country. There lies a clear hesitance among women to run for political office.
Women make up 19.4% of Congress, 23.7% of the statewide elective, and 25% of state legislatures. More specifically, women of color constitute 7.1% of total Congress members, 2.2% of total elected state executives, and 5.9% of the total of the state legislature representatives.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, most people, regardless of gender, believe women are qualified to run for office. Census data shows that as of 2016, men and women earn the same number of bachelor’s degrees.
Academics from many fields have had, and continue to have, rich discussions about the systemic issues that lead to an underrepresentation of women in male-dominated fields. The most well-researched and probable ideas include structural racism, class inequality, and sexism. Studies and research from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and many other reputable universities prove that society does place institutional barriers between U.S. women and people of color and political involvement.
However, outside of those institutionalized barriers, there are many components–primarily societal ideas–that influence whether or not women run for office. This article will pay special attention to those perceptions and beliefs that discourage or prevent women, especially women of color, from running for office.
Two of the factors that I find most important:
- Women can be held to higher standards than men.
- Women of color face unequal opportunities when trying to enter politics.
First, let’s explore the idea of women being held to a higher standard than men. A Pew Research survey looked at the difference between men and women’s perceptions of why there are so few women in U.S. higher elected offices. Forty-seven percent (47%) of women said that women are held to higher standards than men.
Are women actually held to higher standards than men? Yes and no. Kathleen Dolan in her book, When Does Gender Matter, claims that while gendered stereotypes certainly exist in politics, partisan issues play a larger part in voter decisions than gender does. Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless in their book, Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, also assert that while sexism within politics absolutely exists, systemic bias against female candidates no longer exists. Hayes and Lawless explain the gap: the lack of female candidates willing to run plays a major role in the lack of female representation in office.
American University’s Women and Politics Institute published a study which argued that a lack of political ambition was one of the greatest reasons women do not run. It is important to note, however, that this lack of ambition is not necessarily because women are lazy or do not care about political issues. Rather, it points to deeply embedded beliefs about gender that still prevail today. Women are taught to be less competitive than men are, and women throughout the U.S. still are disproportionately in charge of household tasks. These imbalances explain much of the hesitation when running for office.
Studies show that female candidates can do well when running for office. Historically, female candidates were seen to be unfit for office simply because they were women. Nowadays, society itself does not prevent women from running for office, but individual negative opinions, stereotyping, and self-doubt that is instilled from a young age for many women still prevents them from running. In short, sexism exists on micro level (amongst individuals) when women are running for office but research shows it does not exist as largely on a macro level (amongst institutions). Micro level sexism could play a major deterrent to female candidates when thinking about running for office.
Second, it is important to note that while women as a whole do not face huge challenges when running, the same is not true for women of color, who are disproportionately faced with significantly unequal opportunities when running for office. The Center for American Women & Politics (CAWP) reports that Black women are often discouraged from running for office by other people. Compared to White women and Black men, Black women are significantly less encouraged to engage in politics, and are recruited to run for office less often.
Women of color face specific major hurdles when deciding to run for office. They face more issues fundraising than White women do. The CAWP’s report on Black Women in American Politics cites studies that explain that Black candidates receive smaller donations and often must campaign outside their districts in less-affluent areas.
As noted previously, there is absolutely micro level sexism within politics. Scholars refer to women of color as being “doubly disadvantaged” because of their race and sex, and the CAWP cites studies that show that Black women in particular deal with negative stereotypes about their competence and personality traits. These beliefs are heavily rooted in sexism and racism. Understandably and unfortunately, many women of color view the cost of running for office as too high and the reward too low. Women of color do run and win, but they are often playing by a different, harder, set of rules.
While more White women and women of color run for office than ever before, there remain significant gaps in representation. We need women in office. Women across the country work to promote positive social change and to lift and empower other marginalized groups in their community. Not only that, White women and women of color experience the world differently. Their voices are important when looking to solve institutional discrimination, and when working to deal with incorrect perceptions and advocating with groups that try to bridge the gap. This collaboration is essential moving forward. Women need to be encouraged to run, they need to be supported by people and organizations when they run, and society needs to work to erase the damaging beliefs we instill in young girls. If our young women know that, as Beyoncé says, they can “run the world,” they will run for office someday too. Their voices are necessary.
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