Do Family Responsibilities Keep Women from Running for Office?

Based on data from the 2011 Citizen Political Ambition Study – a new, national survey of nearly 4,000 “potential candidates” for all levels of office – we provide the first thorough analysis of the manner in which traditional family arrangements affect the initial decision to run for office. Despite a substantial gender gap in political ambition, and the persistence of traditional family structures and gender roles among potential candidates, our findings culminate to provide clear evidence that traditional family dynamics do not account for the gender gap in potential candidates‟ interest in running for office. Neither marital and parental status, nor the division of labor pertaining to household tasks and childcare, predict interest in pursuing elective office, taking steps typically associated with a campaign, or actually declaring a candidacy. Further, family arrangements do not influence patterns of political recruitment or potential candidates‟ self-evaluations of their qualifications to run for office, which serve as two leading predictors of political ambition. This is not to downplay the fact that the gender gap in political ambition remains substantial and unchanging. But it is to suggest that family arrangements are not a contributing factor.

From a new paper by Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless (ungated pdf).  Their survey deliberately samples men and women from occupations that feed people into political office—such as in law, business, education, and political activism.  The men and women in their sample are virtually identical in terms of educational attainment and income.  Despite this, as their abstract notes, women in their sample had many more family responsibilities than the men.  No surprise.

Much more surprising is that no measure of family structure or responsibilities—whether respondents were married, had children, or had children at home, or were responsible for the majority of household tasks or childcare—significantly affected the pronounced gender gap in political ambition.  Women were less ambitious than men, regardless of family structure and responsibilities.  Fox and Lawless provide a possible explanation:

Ultimately, we argue that the last few decades have experienced a normalization of professional women balancing successful careers with traditional family roles. To be sure, these women still experience the double bind. But they have successfully navigated this terrain in their professional lives. Traditional gender roles might not be fair, and they may make women‟s lives more challenging, but that does not mean that family roles impede women‟s interest in running for office.

They do note that family responsibilities may have affected whether women even entered into a profession that would make them eligible to be included in this study:

It is also important to acknowledge that the perpetuation of traditional family arrangements may affect women’s career choices long before they enter the candidate eligibility pool…Indeed, occupational trends in the fields of law, education, and business demonstrate that, for family reasons, many women “opt-out” of the professional pipeline from which most candidates – male and female – emerge.

For more on the gender gap in political ambition and Fox and Lawless’s research, see this earlier post and the links therein.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.