Professor Hilde Coffé is Professor in Politics in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. Dr Robin Devroe and Dr Audrey Vandeleene are senior researchers in the Department of Political Sciences at Ghent University. Professor Bram Wauters is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences at Ghent University.
With the recent revelations about misogyny and sexism in British Parliament, questions around the culture in democracy’s most important political institution, and women’s representation therein, is more pertinent than ever.
While women’s representation has increased during the last few decades, they remain significantly underrepresented compared with men. The existing masculine culture within political institutions in which sexism seems to be common may deter women from entering the political arena, and we know that women do tend to show lower levels of political ambition compared with men. So, what are the reasons why women are less likely to run for office than men?
In our paper, we are particularly interested in the extent to which women and men’s differences in preferences for and perceptions about attaining typical goals of a political career can help explain gender differences in nascent political ambition, understood as the potential interest in office seeking.
We start from the premise that men and women who like the goals typically attained by a political career (preferences) will have higher levels of political ambition, in particular when they believe that these goals are important for such a career (perceptions). In line with the ‘goal congruity framework’ (Diekman & Steinberg, 2013), we thus argue that only when the goals that citizens prefer are in line with the goals that they think political representatives consider as important, a political career becomes an attractive option to them, causing a high level of political ambition. It does not, for example, matter whether someone likes cooking (high preference) if this person believes that political representatives do not consider cooking important for a political career (low perception). In this case, one’s affinity for cooking will not impact one’s political ambition.
Following Schneider et al. (2016), our research focuses on three political career goals: communal, power and independence goals which refer to doing something for society, exercising power, and developing one’s own ideas respectively. Politics is evidently associated with competition, political power, strong leadership, and independence (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995), but some political activities, such as helping others and serving humanity, clearly fulfil communal goals as well. Hence studying the three goals allows us to grasp the total complexity of the goals associated with a political mandate and include goals which can attract women and men to a different extent.
Surveying students of the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) (N=322), we asked to what extent they (1) were personally attracted by goals that may be pursued through a political career (preferences), and (2) thought the goals were important for political representatives (perceptions). We found evidence of substantial gender differences in both preferences for and perceptions about goals to be pursued by a political career (see Figure 1 and Figure 2).
While women are less likely to believe that communal goals can be achieved by a political mandate than men, they do tend to like achieving such goals more than men. There is thus a mismatch among women and men about the extent to which they like achieving communal goals (preferences) and the extent to which they think these goals can be achieved through a political mandate (perceptions). Men are more likely to prefer power and independence goals, but perceptions about the importance of these goals for a political career are – contrary to our expectations – similar for women and men.
Figure 1: Average scores on preferences for goals that may be pursued through a political careera
Figure 2: Average scores on perceptions about the extent to which goals are important for political representativesa
Preferences for and perceptions about goals do also matter for political ambition, in particular those related to power. Those who prefer power goals are significantly more likely to be politically ambitious. By contrast, perceptions that political representatives consider power as an important goal slightly decrease the likelihood of being politically ambitious. Preferences for and perceptions about the other goals (independence and communal goals) do not have a significant effect on political ambition.
Despite the impact of perceptions and preferences, and the described gender differences therein, they matter little for explaining the gender gap. Indeed, the gender gap is robust and strong, even among our sample of university students enrolled at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences who are by default more likely to be politically involved and have greater levels of political interest than students from other faculties. Even more so in the Belgian context, which has legislative gender quotas and comparatively fairly high levels of women’s descriptive representation with about 40% women in the national and regional parliaments.
The fact that young women continue to report lower levels of nascent political ambition compared with men has crucial implications for gender diversity in parliament as it is a decisive factor in explaining representation. Our findings suggest that the way a political mandate is framed and perceived is critical for political ambition. When thinking about the goals that can be pursued through politics, women seem to rely more strongly on the traditional masculine ethos of politics involving little focus on communal goals compared with men. To increase women’s ambition to run for office, it is thus crucial that communal goals are also seen as an important aspect of politics, and that the political culture is not perceived only as consisting of competition or power.
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