Mrs. Smith Doesn’t Go to Washington

  • Share
  • Read Later

When it comes to legislators, men are to be expected and ladies are to be exceptions. We may see a lot of Sarah Palin on TV, but the inordinate amount of coverage she gets really just goes to show how folks become atwitter when a woman, much less a Republican one, walks onto the national political scene. Her sudden emergence in 2008 turned the media into a bunch of pre-teens at a Justin Bieber concert in large part because of her scarcity value.

Since the first woman was elected to Congress in 1917, there have only been 274 female representatives and senators. Back in the day it was the laws of society, bent on keeping the ladies in aprons and supporting roles, that were to blame. Later in the 20th-century, theories held that women lacking JDs, MBAs and big ole personal fortunes simply didn’t have the right résumés.

But that was then. It’s 2011, and professional women unhampered by sexual discrimination abound. So why do females make up only about 17% of the current Congress? According to a recent study, it might be because they’re lacking a good, old-fashioned daily affirmation (ideally as delivered by now-Sen. Al Franken). The findings, published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Political Science, suggest that the current gender gap has more to do with female self-perception than the society they live in. The brazenness of Palin and Michele Bachmann is what ladies need more of if they’re going to make congressional participation truly equal.

The idea that women have been culturally conditioned to see themselves as unsuitable for office — as demure, non-combative creatures — is not new. But political scientists Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless took a rare, empirical look at the theory, crunching data from a survey in which thousands of “equally credentialed” men and women were quizzed on their self-image.

When asked how qualified they were to hold public office, 80% of men, brimming with confidence, said they were either qualified or very qualified. Fewer than two-thirds of women answered the same way. Ladies were also twice as likely to say that they are “not at all qualified” to run for public office. (As the researchers note, the results may not only come from women’s under-assessment, “but also men’s tendency to overestimate their political skills.”) Even after a great series of data-crunches, controlling for everything from interest in politics to public speaking experience, they found that sex predicted how well qualified people would find themselves for electoral careers.

Fox and Lawless then dug deeper with 17 questions designed to root out where a gap might come from. One of the biggest differences was that women were much more likely to doubt that they had skin thick enough for the job. Women were also more averse to negative campaigning and dealing with the press.

The researchers didn’t seem to find this a very rosy state of affairs: “Ultimately, given the heavyweight potential candidates place on their self-evaluations when considering a candidacy, women’s full inclusion in the electoral process is unlikely in the near future and women’s political equality is illusory,” they write in the conclusion. “The changes required to close the gender gap in the perceptions we uncovered involve dismantling some of the most deeply embedded and socialized beliefs that both women and men hold about what political candidates look like and what performing that role entails.”

There is always the alternative view: It isn’t beliefs about what electoral office is like, but rather what electoral office is actually like that is the problem. And unless the news-cycle scales back from 24-hour controversy, many things about politics that appear to put women off are only bound to get more off-putting.

(Photo Credit: Women in Congress)