The Accidental Mathematician

Wishing away the glass ceiling


A few weeks ago, the Brookings Institution published a report on a study investigating why there are so few women in public offices. The study was conducted by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox in early 2008; I found out about it via articles in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. (That was several weeks ago. I would have blogged it then if I’d had the time.)

In this report, we argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.

That’s a little bit like saying that I don’t play the lottery because I would not want to win a million dollars.

I’ve never run for public office or thought seriously of doing so, but I’m familiar enough with the glass ceiling in science, including the actual research and the administration of science. Based on that experience, I can say confidently enough that a woman who doesn’t run for something or other is not necessarily lacking in ambition. She may very well have other reasons, such as a realistic and sober assessment of the level of support that her candidacy will attract, the expected resistance she will face if elected, or the cost to her professional and personal life.

Politics is the art of the possible. It’s also the art of knowing what is possible, what is not, and what is not worth its price.

On to the details. The study surveyed two roughly equal-sized groups, male and female, of professionals in occupations that often yield political candidates (law, business, politics, education). The factual findings are valuable, if not too surprising. Women are less likely to consider running and to take concrete steps in that direction. They are more easily deterred by the prospect of campaining. They are less likely to be recruited to run and to believe that they are qualified for the position.

But the conclusions are sometimes a little bit off.

In terms of fundraising and vote totals, the consensus among researchers is the complete absence of overt gender bias. […] In other words, when women run for office – regardless of the position they seek – they are just as likely as their male counterparts to win their races.

Given that fewer women run for office to begin with, it might be possible that those who do run are preselected more carefully than their male counterparts in terms of qualifications, political talent, ambition and determination. Urban legend has it that women must be more skilled and work harder than men in order to achieve equal success.

Is the urban legend correct? The study reports that women are statistically less likely to “feel qualified”, but that their credentials are comparable to their male conterparts. The second claim is based on responses to several “yes or no” questions concerning relevant experience (has conducted policy research, has organized events, etc). I would point out here that these activities are all pretty common among this group of professionals; what’s more relevant is the actual level of excellence and accomplishment. We learn, for instance, that 65% of women and 69% of men in the study engage in regular public speaking. Fine, but does a woman have to be more skilled and accomplished (in terms of types of engagements, generating enthusiasm in the audience, etc) in order to feel qualified to run? Does she have to be more skilled to be elected? We don’t get an answer to that.

Despite the general disclination toward the mechanics and personal trade-offs involved in running for office, women are significantly more likely than men to allow their negative feelings toward the various aspects of a campaign to prevent them from entering the electoral arena.

It’s also possible that women have more vitriol thrown at them during the campaign. We all know how Hillary Clinton was the media’s darling. Of course, most women aren’t Hillary Clinton. The study says that women “are more likely […] to determine that they lack the thick skin required to succeed in politics”. How much actual hostility – if any – does a woman face when she runs for the city council? District attorney? State governor? How does it compare to what male candidates face? I’d like to know.

Then, unfortunately, there is this:

As we mentioned at the outset of the report, when women run for office, they are just as likely as men to win their races. The lack of gender bias in fundraising receipts and election outcomes, however, is only as good as the dissemination of the message. That is, if women think the system is biased against them, then the empirical reality of a playing field on which women can succeed is almost meaningless.

In other words: if someone could just explain to women that there is no glass ceiling, the glass ceiling would cease to exist. It’s all in your head, darling.

I would suggest that the data collected by Lawless and Fox points to a different conclusion. Specifically, the study shows that women are less likely to be encouraged to run for public office, both by political gatekeepers and by their co-workers, family and friends. I see it as evidence of a statistically significant bias: the community is less likely to see women as suitable candidates. We are not just making it up.

But if a woman is qualified and wants to take a shot at it, she can just put forward her own candidacy, right? Well, the study emphasizes the importance of encouragement and finds that those who have received it are twice as likely to run. There is a very simple explanation for this. If you’ve been recruited or encouraged to run for something, it’s a pretty reliable indicator that your candidacy will be taken seriously. Conversely, the same people who wouldn’t have suggested a woman as a viable candidate might also be less than eager to support her campaign, vote for her, or accept her as a leader if she gets elected.

In my own experience, women are rather more likely to be discouraged from being too ambitious. Just keep doing your own work, honey, don’t get out of line, and we will all be happier. You think that something or other should be done differently, or perhaps there’s an agenda you want to advance? Doesn’t mean that you should be in charge of doing that. Go talk to the man who’s currently holding the office. Perhaps he’ll let you do the work for him. You insist that you want to run yourself? It’s unbecoming to admit your ambition so openly. Politicians always run for office out of the selfless desire to work for the greater common good. You think that Mr. X is a little bit less qualified? That’s so not collegial. You should learn to work with people before you try running for something.

The bottom line is: it would be nice if ambitious women really faced a level playing field, but the study has not convinced me of that and has in fact provided good evidence to the contrary.