Women in Congress: Causes & Consequences

by Katie

Our readers, friends and family are very good about contributing to fresh ink, whether it is a kind word of encouragement, pointing out a typo or, in Katie’s case, an idea for a blog post topic! She passed along an article by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox she thought I might want to write a post about. I had actually read a book by Lawless and Fox, It Takes a Candidate, for my “Women in American Politics” class last semester. The authors do a succinct and effective job laying out the causes of this gender gap in American politics and it is largely thanks to them and my professors that I feel so strongly about this issue today. I asked Katie to write a guest post about it because I knew Katie would be able to provide an intelligent and different perspective to this conversation. Thanks, Katie! –Hannah

As a fellow political science major, I found Hannah’s post on the gender gap in the US Congress really intriguing. Hannah points out that despite the US’ supposedly forward attitude towards gender equality, less than 20% of Congress consists of women representatives. Recent reports have shown that women are gradually entering the employment sector at equal rates to men, so why is there such a stark underrepresentation of women in Congress? And, as Hannah asks, what can we do about this?

In one of my political science classes a few years back, we read an article by academics Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox that examines these very questions. According to Lawless and Fox, there are several psychological and societal differences between men and women, which result in women deciding not to run for office. According to their study, women who are identified as being prime candidates for Congress (based on their work experience in the community or leadership characteristics) most often choose not to run because they either do not want to be a national-scale representative or they do not believe they are qualified for the position. Essentially, these women have decided they would rather work for a Congressman behind the scenes or remain in their leadership position within the local government, because they feel that they are better suited for these roles. The women who do decide to run for office tend to encounter the same issues (such as the incumbency advantage or raising enough money) as do men, and therefore have a relatively equal chance at securing a seat in Congress.

These findings raise several important questions when evaluating the lack of women representatives. First, why do women assume they are not qualified to assume the role of representative? Is there some underlying psychological condition that prevents women from realizing their abilities? Does this situation also carry over to a lack of women seeking promotions in other types of jobs? In order for more women to be elected to Congress, it is imperative that more women are recognized by their communities as potential leaders, and encouraged to run for the position.

However, the article also raised the point that some women simply do not want to be the Congressional figure for their district, and would much rather work behind the scenes in their representative’s office. In this position, the woman would still be involved in national policy and decision making, but would have a less public role. More and more women these days are choosing this path, and working for their representatives on the Hill. So now I ask, it is important for us to push more women into taking the role of Congresswoman if they are equally happy working behind the scenes? Is it necessary for the US to impose gender quotas on our legislative system, or are women gaining a voice in Congress through other avenues?

What do you think needs to be done to increase the number of women in political office?

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~ by freshinkblog on February 9, 2011.

2 Responses to “Women in Congress: Causes & Consequences”

  1. Your questions presuppose the answers, for the most part. No, of course IF women feel better working behind the scenes then they should have the freedom to do so. Having the freedom to DO requires that one also have the freedom to DO NOT.

    Working behind the scenes has some advantages. You are not bound to serve out the full term of an office, for instance. You can cut a term short to have a child or adopt a child. Or to go back to school, or change careers, or any number of other choices. You can be free of the mud-slinging that too often goes along with having a public office. You can be free of many other burdens of being out in front, among them the need to perform figurehead functions. Invisible, you can look at all sides of a question carefully before choosing an answer.

    One of the insights which arrived with second-wave feminism is that women and men need not choose identical ways of life to have true equality. Crudely put, a women need not wear a jockstrap to do as well as a man at a job. A woman can wear makeup and have her hair styled and, yes, even enjoy the aesthetics of shoes without being powerless or superficial.

    The downside of a woman choosing a non-public way of exerting power is that it does not encourage young women to seek power. That’s life: that every choice has advantages and disadvantages.

  2. Hi Katie and Hannah

    I have already sort of talked to you about this, but I wanted to give a shameless plug for emerge, which is an organization that prepares women for running for office. The Massachusetts website is http://www.emergema.org/ and if you’re interested in what it’s like check out my blog entry: http://www.emergeamerica.org/node/406

    Let me know if any of you are interested in learning more!!

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