Notwithstanding Hillary, why aren’t more women in public office?

by Alexandra Didenko, PLI Policy Intern

Nowadays we get used to hearing that women can do or be anything. In fact, that’s true only in theory. Certainly, the role of women has increased in all aspects of life, including politics. And this is not surprising: women are at least as capable as men to be stable, tolerant, and perseverant, especially in critical situations. Yet, according to a World Value Survey, almost 20 percent of Americans agree that “on the whole, men make better political leaders than women do.”

That’s one reason why only 20 percent of the Members of Congress, 25 percent of statewide elected officials, 25 percent of state legislators, and less than 19 percent of mayors are female. But there are many other factors as well.

There is a history of social expectations that women remain passive in society; for a long time, they were expected to remain strictly in the roles of homemakers and mothers. This gender stereotype is still present in many cultures to this day, including certain areas in the U.S. And some continue to believe in gender stereotypes, for example, that being a good political leader is like being a good driver, and women are not good in both. And it gets even worse because women are sometimes valued more for their beauty instead of their experience and intelligence. For example, in 2009, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, wanted to, “line up some ‘fresh faces’ for the 2009 European parliamentary elections” by running models and actresses as legislative candidates for his party.

Research conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that when evaluating a female politician, the American voter tends to analyze two components: the personal appeal of a woman (if she is attractive or not) and her achievements in the professional arena. Even if a woman has achieved outstanding professional success, but the voter does not find her attractive, he will most likely not give her his vote. When it comes to a male candidate, a voter would assess him as a man and a political leader simultaneously. Moreover, even if a male candidate’s track record is far from perfect, the voter will likely support him if he likes him personally. Furthermore, if a female politician belongs to the Republican Party, she is treated as a Republican first and then as a woman. In case of Democrats, the perception is the opposite: gender comes first. Independents, though, tend to prefer women candidates.

Still another factor is that women are often underestimated because of their perceived lack of experience in policy whereas men are considered to be more skillful, as in military or economics. On top of all of this, female politicians are often considered to be too soft and flexible based on their ‘natural’ qualities. This perception incorrectly leads many to believe that a female leader would be too weak defending their position and making difficult choices. Thus, the perceived lack of ruthlessness can be one of the obstacles that prevents women from being seen as full-fledged professionals in the political sphere.

Following this logic, men would have enough toughness for drastic measures. But the majority of countries are ruled by males, and if we consider all the wars and conflicts (Syria, Ukraine, etc.), wouldn’t it be better to have someone who will not immediately act drastically but have the capability to use diplomacy and find a compromise? A study conducted by Huddy and Terkildsen (1993) showed that female candidates can, in fact, win national office but they need to possess masculine traits and manage to convince voters about this by demonstrating competence in “male” policy issues. In order to succeed, the study says, it is vital for women to demonstrate two “male” qualities – strength and toughness.

There has been real progress in establishing gender equality, but much more needs to be done. Authentic democracy requires the full participation of all constituent groups, especially the largest group of underrepresented citizens – women.


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