Ash Center: A Game Stacked Against Them

September 3, 2013
 Ash Center: A Game Stacked Against Them
2013 State of the Union Address; Credit: Lawrence Jackson

Ash Democracy Fellow Shauna Shames Explores Why Women and Minorities Don’t Run for Political Office

By Kate Hoagland 

The numbers are startling. Less than 20 percent of all US political leaders are women, and only 10 percent of all leaders are from a racial minority group. White men hold the vast majority of all nationally-elected political offices, despite representing only 33 percent of the US population compared to women at 51 percent and minorities at 33 percent. Why do women and non-white minorities remain largely outside of politics?

Shauna Shames explores the reasons for this stark representational imbalance in her dissertation research “Anticipating Hating Politics: Gender, Race, and the Expectations of Eligible Candidates.” Shames is an Ash Center Democracy Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard’s Department of Government. “There’s such a serious discrepancy in who gets elected, and it has become clear that it is not that voters are picking men over women and minorities, it’s that they do not have a lot of women and minorities to pick,” said Shames.

Building upon broader existing literature on minorities and political participation, Shames developed the Graduate Student Political Ambition Study and surveyed a diverse group of about 800 current students at Harvard Law School, Harvard Kennedy School, and Suffolk Law School. Her survey evaluated respondents’ interest in running for political office, perceptions of discrimination in politics, and personal beliefs on the usefulness of politics. Shames followed up with nearly 60 in-depth, one-hour interviews with selected respondents from each school.

The Findings
Shames’ findings demonstrate that even among those most likely to run for office (over 40 percent of politicians have a law degree) men and women have very different degrees of interest in attaining political office. While 21 percent of surveyed men stated that they had considered running, only 9 percent of women had similar political aspirations. “Women, more than men, see running for office as a game stacked against them,” explained Shames.

Part of this may be due to a lack of faith among women that politics can truly make a difference—while 52 percent of men stated that the problems they most care about could be solved through politics, only 32 percent of women felt the same. Anticipating backlash and discrimination may be another reason women do not find political office attractive—over half of all women surveyed (53 percent) reported experiencing at least two forms of discrimination while less than half that number (22 percent) of males reported similar incidents.

Perceiving Discrimination
Experiencing discrimination may also be an indicator of perceiving it happening to others. When asked about the treatment of President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton leading up to the 2008 presidential election, women and non-whites often perceived far more discrimination in the news media than white men: 37 percent of white men viewed Clinton’s treatment as fair compared to 7 percent of non-white women, 14 percent of white women, and 33 percent of non-white men. This pattern persisted in evaluating Obama’s treatment: 58 percent of white men thought President Obama was treated fairly as compared to 27 percent of non-white women, 36 percent of white women, and 54 percent of non-white men.

Shames’ research also reveals that even though gender serves as the strongest predictor of one’s ambitions for political office, race sometimes also plays a role. Black women surveyed demonstrated less ambition to run for political office than black men, and Asian Americans of both genders communicated the lowest levels of political ambition among all races. “Race and sex together—but not race by itself—are significantly correlated in these data with a number of variables that relate to having or lacking political ambition.”

Accumulation of Disadvantage
Aversion to run for office may a result of the campaign process itself. When asked if they would hold office if election campaigning could be avoided, 51 percent of women and 64 percent of men stated they would. Factors such as a invasion of privacy, negative campaigns, the difficulty of campaign funding along with anticipation of discrimination and perceiving politics as lacking usefulness together add up to what Shames calls the “accumulation of disadvantage,” quoting sociologist Virginia Valian. Such accumulation can deter potentially good candidates from even considering political office.

As the next phase of her research, Shames will study other potential factors that could deter candidates such as geography, religion, and immigration status. Ultimately, she hopes her research will inform policymakers, activists, and academics in finding tangible ways to shift people’s perceptions of politics as a meaningful endeavor that outweighs issues of discrimination and other barriers.

“I think if you give disadvantaged people—especially women and minorities—reasons to run, they will overcome all of the odds,” said Shames. “Eventually we will do better. I would just like it to be sooner rather than later.”