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If we can achieve gender parity in our student government associations, why haven't we reached the same in Congress?

In high schools around the country, the number of men and women that are interested in politics, and that run for student government are about equal. In college, about 52.93% of student government positions are held by women, which is representative of undergraduate students demographics.  But that parity is not maintained after college. Despite making up 51% of the population, women only make up 20% of congress, and the problem isn’t just getting elected – only 22% of this year’s senatorial candidates are women, which is the highest it’s ever been, but it still shows how few women are running. So why aren’t women running for office nearly as much as they do in a scholastic environment?

Student government has long fostered political activism in students and encouraged them to run for office later in life – 40% of women currently serving in Congress were members of student government – yet after college many women previously invested in politics don’t pursue careers in office. Studies have shown not only that women don’t want to stay in politics after college, but are actively discouraged by their families, their peers, and their political parties.

A study by American University shows that although men and women are equally encouraged by their families to run for student government, (about 24% of boys’ parents encourage them to run, and 25% of girls’), that greatly changes later in life, when 40% of men report their parents encouraging them to run for political office, and only 29% of women can report the same encouragement. This reflects a cultural trend discouraging women from pursuing a career in politics that starts in the home.

Explored further in a similar study conducted by American University a year later, that lack of encouragement for women is present in all aspects of their daily lives – colleagues, spouses, and acquaintances all are reported to encourage men to run for office over women. Politicians and political actors also on average encourage many more men to run than women, making a significant difference in the candidate pool.

Source: Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, "Girls Just Wanna Not Run": The Gender Gap in Young Americans' Political Ambition

While in student government elections funding isn’t an issue, the bar is much higher in bids for office. An article by the Washington Post suggests the reason many women don’t run for office is fundraising. In their survey they found “two-thirds of women saying it is difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively and nine in ten women saying fundraising influences their decision to try for a national or statewide seat”.

Fundraising for female candidates is so difficult because while a candidate’s funds are generated in part by donations from supporters, they are largely contributed by the donations of Political Action Committees (PACs), which generally favor male candidates. PACs are organizations in which like-minded individuals pool their money to donate to specific campaigns. These PACs tend to underfund women, especially those running in open seats, and in 2012 despite comprising 42% of the year’s candidates for open seats women received only 18% of PAC donations for open seat candidates. (Source: Center for Responsive Politics). Not only are female candidates underfunded in their campaigns, but female Republicans in particular are subject to significantly disproportionate oppositional funding, meaning much more money is being spent to go against their campaigns. (Source: Center for Responsive Politics).

Underfunding women that run in open seats makes a big difference, as most women are running in open seats. They do this because winning against an incumbent is nearly impossible - in 2016 incumbents in the House had a 97% reelection percentage. Incumbency is a massive barrier to parity in government, as it gives women the options of either running in for an open seat whilst underfunded, or run against an incumbent, giving them a 3% average success rate. Incumbents are mostly men, and unless more women are elected and become incumbents themselves, incumbency will continue to prevent women from holding office. 

Perhaps the barrier most ingrained in our society that women face is their self-assessment that they aren’t fit for office. Consistently women report believing they are less qualified for office than their male colleagues, and often overqualified women will end up thinking they aren’t fit to run for office. The reality is, women find it harder than men to see themselves in office, likely because for young women there are few female politicians to serve as role models; 24 states have never had a female governor, and there have been no female presidents (yet).  

Additionally, the lack of support women receive from their families, friends, or political organizations inevitably leads many to believe that government is a boy’s club, or that women aren’t wanted, leading to their not putting their name on the ballot. This notion is clearly misinformed as despite having to face so many hurdles in running for office, women typically have equal win rates in their elections when compared to male candidates, a study of the 2016 state legislative elections shows.

Young women are prevalent in student office positions, but once out of college they face many more barriers than men if they want to continue their political careers, discouraging women from pursuing being a politician. Fixing the lack of female interest in running for office starts with encouraging young women that they do have a role in government, and that they are able to succeed just as often as men. Dispelling the false notion early in women’s lives that they aren’t qualified for government is likely to lead to more women running for office, and equal representation for women.

This blog was prepared by a RepresentWomen intern, Thomas Mills, August 2018. 

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