The XX Factor

Do Women Not Run for Office Because They’re Scared of Being Judged?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, not inherently timid.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Women who run for office are just as likely as men to win their races, yet somehow women continue to be wildly outnumbered by men in public office. The reason is that women simply don’t run for office nearly as often as men, a discrepancy that attracts quite a bit of social science research. The latest study, reported by Derek Willis of the New York Times, tried to measure if there was something about being voted on specifically that discourages women from running.

University of Pittsburgh researchers Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon designed an experiment, described by Willis:

In the experiment, members of a group volunteered to do math problems (with the possibility of a reward) on behalf of their group. In some cases, the person doing the problems was selected at random from among the volunteers; in other cases, the group elected one of its volunteers to do the problems.

When the volunteers were chosen at random, men and women volunteered at the same rate, but women were less willing to volunteer if they knew it would be put to a vote. Women, it appears, are just less interested in having their worthiness offered up for public debate.

“What if there is something about women that makes them not want to run for office that doesn’t have anything to do with external factors?” Kanthak wondered to Willis.

The researchers certainly provided evidence that women’s own fears are holding them back from offering themselves up, but I would caution against interpreting this data as somehow excluding external factors. After all, the reason that women are more afraid to offer themselves up for public judgment isn’t because women are inherently timid, as shown by their willingness to volunteer in the random selection groups. The likelier explanation is that women know, from experience, that the process of having a group evaluate your worthiness is a much more punishing experience for women, because you have to endure greater and more candid scrutiny than men do, a gender disparity that any foray into social media or parenting or Hollywood easily demonstrates.

This experiment has its limits, of course, which the researchers don’t deny. For one thing, the fact that the task at hand was doing math problems may have exaggerated the findings, since there are negative stereotypes about women being bad at math, and participants may have been unwilling to endure having those stereotypes invoked during debates about their worthiness. Still, the study provides a useful bit of information about the different obstacles men and women face when it comes to running for office. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a little more than telling women to suck it up and deal in order to get them to run.