Covers | April 12, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Why Women Don’t Win

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Creating gender equality in American politics won’t prove easy

Caroline Cox

Although Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann shone bright in the political spotlight during the fall campaign, the American midterm elections proved a generally disappointing cycle for female candidates. Despite promises of a new “year of the woman,” many of the most prominent females running lost their races. Perhaps more troubling, the results were no deviation from a longstanding trend. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women hold only 17 percent of the seats in Congress. On the global scale, the United States ranks 90th in the world in terms of the number of women in the main legislative body. These statistics are even more striking given that more women than men voted in the 2008 election, yet 50 percent fewer women than men choose to run for elected office. Lack of gender equality in politics is a systemic problem, and it is one that the United States alone may not solve. Nonetheless, greater public attention and concern to the perception and value of women involved in politics can perhaps increase female participation.

Walking the Political Tightrope

While women face many barriers to attaining political power, one of the most critical factors remains the cultural norms of American society, which include the perceived notions of what makes an effective leader. As several observers have described, women navigating politics must walk a tightrope of diverse challenges. In particular, female politicos must find a careful balance between maintaining their femininity and proving themselves capable in a male-dominated profession. Professor Barbara Kellerman of the Kennedy School suggested that women bear the challenge of pairing their femininity with the expected masculine toughness required of a politician. “Generally, positions of leadership are not on the extremely feminine side. You see power suits for a reason,” said Kellerman. “Most women across sectors are not extremely or overtly sexy, but they aren’t supposed terribly homely. How they look, how they speak, how they sound is generally considered to be much more important than men.”

This undue amount of attention paid to how women present themselves illustrates the barriers present for women seeking any form of leadership. Cultural norms within the United States typically dictate that women are more empathetic, humble, and focused on communal issues than the aggressive male prototype. “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership,” a paper by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli, suggests that it is almost impossible for women to succeed in the complicated game of leadership, given all their handicaps. The authors assert that Americans for the most part “like men with more of the traits that connote leadership,” and women who attempt to emulate their male counterparts often face negative reactions. The path to leadership, therefore, offers few clear advantages and many difficulties for women.

A Problem at All Levels

The underrepresentation of women in American politics may nonetheless harm the body politic, particularly with regard to the political debates that directly impact women. Research suggests that women elected to political office devote more time to issues that are important to women voters, including domestic violence and sexual harassment, child care, and reproductive rights, regardless of party affiliation. With so few women in elected positions, then, legislators are more likely to put these major issues aside or ignore their female constituents’ perspectives.

Complicating the problem, the lack of political gender equality is not limited to the national level. Within Massachusetts, the representation of women in elected office dropped from 28 to 23 percent in the last election cycle, indicating that moderate gains for women can be just as easily erased. In fact, women running as incumbents are some of the most vulnerable candidates at the municipal level, and often face greater difficulties than their male counterparts in raising the funds necessary to wage a successful campaign.

Yet there are those that argue that the gender disparity at all political levels simply reflects women’s disinterest in running for political office. In an interview with the HPR, Priti Rao, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, conceded that this might be part of the problem. “Women in particular tend to be less likely to be self-promoters,” explained Rao. “In order to get women to agree and to run for office she has to be asked seven times by seven different people.” This reluctance stems not just from a general distaste for politics, but also from the difficulties that women must face when entering the political theater. Nonetheless, Rao contends that other difficulties, particularly the significant need to balance roles, remains the preeminent challenge for female candidates.

The Facebook Effect

Despite these persistent challenges to women interested in political careers, social media may offer cause for some hope. Politicians such as Sarah Palin, Claire McCaskill, and Michele Bachmann have found enormous amount success in connecting with voters through websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. These social networking sites reach a disproportionate number of women worldwide, a valuable property, given that women voters are the greatest supporters of women candidates.

Of course, there are other reasons that social network sites provide such immense support to female candidates. Marie Danziger, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter “will make it easier for women since they don’t always have to appear in public and worry about what they are wearing. They can develop a voice, an aggressive, colorful, and charismatic online voice.” The ability to reach voters without facing direct media scrutiny is an obvious advantage of using social media for women.

As such, political insiders following this link between women in politics and social media assert that the combination may yet prove a powerful one. Alexis Gelber, a Goldsmith Fellow at the Shorenstein Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, is currently researching the link between women politicians and social media during her time at Harvard. In some preliminary notes, she focuses on how prominent female politicians have gained recognition and votes through their use of this new technology. Michele Bachmann, for example, managed to revitalize her political career and attain a prominent role within the Tea Party due to heavy social networking.

Looking to the Future

Advocates of women in political power are likely to look more closely at the possibilities of social media, but the path to leadership for women is still rocky. While organizations such the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus can offer potential candidates support in the election process, there is little hope of gender equity until there is a major shift in the American perception of women and their value in the political process. Until voters care more about the way their politicians vote than how they dress, then, women politicians will continue to face handicaps.

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