Women in Politics: Obstacles Hindering Their Climb to Success

“I’m going to go into politics.” I’ve said this many times to family, friends, coworkers, and new acquaintances. While many people have expressed support and plan to vote for me when I run for office, others doubt my ability as a woman to lead. Whether or not I end up in the White House, I want more than anything to serve in public office and fix what is broken in our country. Because of these goals, I have worked hard to set myself on a path to success. Yet, I also recognize that all of this work may hardly increase my chances, for one obstacle impinges upon my pursuit of success: I am a woman. I rarely allow my lack of a Y chromosome to hinder my plans, but in a country that claims to be full of freedom and equality, it appears that I am branded by this missing piece in my genome, making me feel anything but equal.

In less than a year, the citizens of the United States will elect their 45th commander in chief. However, regardless of the number of candidates that run, the pool of candidates continues to be deficient in one category: women. Out of more than fourteen Republican candidates and three Democratic candidates, each party has only contributed one female candidate to the race: Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and Carly Fiorina on the Republican side. In the history of the United States, only twenty-three women have ever run for the Democratic or Republican candidacy for president; many of their names go unrecognized by the public.

While female involvement in politics has increased over the years, women are still disproportionately represented in the political realm. In America, a country with a 51% female population, Congress is composed of only 17% women. Additionally, the United States was ranked “69th among countries with the highest percentage of women in government” in 2012. Why is this? Many researchers have drawn different conclusions. Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University, attributes the imbalance of political representation to a lack of feminine political ambition, while Cecilia Mo, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, blames sexism in the voting booth on voters’ perceptions of men as stronger leaders. The Huffington Post’s Marie Wilson attributes the lack of female representation in politics to women’s allegiance to family and the home.

While these conclusions may appear to be true, they fail to look deeply into the social conditions that discourage women from running for political office. The lack of female representation in politics stems from stereotypes that plague women, financial restrictions that result from interrupted work, and the disproportionate encouragement of men and women to become effective leaders.

By and large, women have been stereotyped as homemakers for centuries. In 1979, Ronald D. Hedlund, a professor at Northeastern University, wrote that “in the United States, … proper behavior for a woman include[d] being oriented toward the family and toward nurturing others, displaying dependence, and showing very low levels of aggressiveness and achievement orientation.” In other words, Hedlund’s research shows perceptions of a woman’s role 1979 as well as the lack of support for women’s ambitions outside of domestic duties. While the United States has clearly advanced from this perception of women with more working women and the presence of women in politics – however small this presence may be – the remnants of this extremely sexist image still strains women in their political aspirations. Because these criteria for female “proper behavior” have become imbedded in our society, women are less frequently encouraged to enter into the aggressive field of politics. However, this does not make women less likely to have political ambitions. Instead, the lack of encouragement yields low numbers of women that act upon them.

Furthermore, according to Elizabeth Flock, most voters stereotype politically ambitious women as promoters of social issues and male candidates as having a better grasp on “hard issues– like defense and the economy.”  This stereotype may be a result of the media’s interference with female candidates. While it is true that women running for office typically receive an equal amount of coverage in comparison to male candidates, the coverage is gendered.  For example, Scott Bixby from Policy Mic compiled a list of sexist attacks made against Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Presidential elections. Some of these attacks included comments on her elderly appearance, comments on her voice’s similarity to a nagging wife, and her lack of sex appeal. The only mention of Obama’s appearance in the media came when commentators discussed his graying hair. According to Political Parity, women are asked questions about children, family, education, and receive more comments on physical attributes than men, which takes time away from the women to explain their ideas on policy and topics that actually concern voters.

To continue, the discrimination of women in the political realm and the workplace is often times built around obstacles that society imposes on women for conceiving children. When women have children and take maternity leave, they decrease their chances of promotions and make less money. These interruptions in the workforce may be to blame for the disproportionate number of women in politics. When political gatekeepers search for potential candidates, they often look to business executives; when women are absent from top business positions, it is harder for them to be encouraged or chosen by political gatekeepers to run for office.

In other words, when a woman’s climb to success is hindered by structural impediments on the workplace level, her chances of successfully running for office are diminished. A remedy, proposed by President Obama, is to implement paid family leave in which both mothers and fathers have the opportunity to take paid time off from work to care for a newborn. The paid aspect eliminates much of the financial burden that parents incur when taking unpaid leave. With paid family leave, the responsibility of child rearing is equally distributed between parents, and businesses can no longer discriminate against women for having children. Ensuring a balance between the child rearing responsibilities of men and women will allow women to receive equal treatment and have equal opportunities for promotion — in all spheres, including politics.

To continue, the encouragement of women to pursue leadership roles in politics is lacking in the educational world, especially in high school. When I decided to pursue a career in politics, I attended California’s Girls State. Girls State is a political conference for incoming high school seniors in which 500 girls are chosen as delegates to create a mock state, run for office, and draft legislation. Towards the end of the week, the chairs of the event heavily encouraged fundraising. That year, we were told that Girls State was only six days instead of the typical seven because funding had been cut.

Boys State runs a similar program but has some distinct differences. Boys State has enough funding to send 1,000 boys to their program for a full seven days. They also are given the privilege of using the official Senate and Assembly chambers at California’s Capitol. Donors throw money at Boys State while Girls State scrambles to get enough funding for a less substantial program because fewer people encourage women to participate in politics.

The compilation of all of these factors — gendered media coverage, discrimination for women who have children in the workforce, and the disproportionate encouragement of men and women to pursue careers in politics — makes the results of author Stephen Hill’s study less than shocking: women are advancing so slowly in the U.S. that if  female advancement continues at its current rate, it will be another five hundred years before women are proportionately represented in politics. In a country that claims to be so progressive, equal, and advanced, it is unacceptable for progress to develop so slowly.

Potential solutions are everywhere. If President Obama puts his paid family leave into action, mothers will face decreased discrimination in the workplace and reach higher positions, which will enable them to have the funds necessary to run for office. If the media shifts its coverage of male and female candidates to focus on policy and leadership ability, voters will see more accurate representations of candidates, meaning women will have a higher likelihood of being elected. Lastly, if young girls are encouraged to pursue careers in leadership and provided equal opportunities for experience, more women will pursue their political ambitions.

None of these solutions, however, can take place without a change in the mindset of America. Our country needs to recognize the power and equality of women. By removing restrictions placed upon women from youth into adulthood, we will move towards a more proportionate and just representation of 51 percent of America’s population.