Why don't women rule the world book cover
Published on: Oct 20, 2020

By Lori M. Poloni-Staudinger, PhD (Northern Arizona University), J. Cherie Strachan, PhD (Central Michigan University), Candice D. Ortbals, PhD (Abilene Christian University), and Shannon Jenkins, PhD (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth)

Fifty years after Ruth Bader Ginsberg worked to secure constitutional equality for women, misogyny is still alive and well in the American political system. We only need to look at the Vice Presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence to see the way in which gender is used to undermine the ability of women to lead. Women candidates like Harris are often talked over and interrupted repeatedly by their male opponents. Unlike men who are interrupted, they can’t redirect the flow of conversation with a sharp reprimand (or a “just shut up, man”), but must find ways to do so while maintaining likability. When they act publicly, women politicians are often denigrated, as we heard Trump do to Senator Kamala Harris after the VP debate.

Why does this matter?  Research shows that when women candidates are belittled or their credibility or electability is questioned, it dampens other women’s political ambitions. While we saw a “blue wave” of women candidates in 2018, far fewer women than men aspire to elected office. Social scientists point out that American women are still shaped by traditional gender socialization, or raised to embrace traditional family roles. Unlike men, women rarely assume future partners will fully share these responsibilities; nor do they expect that future partners would quit a job or relocate to support the women’s professional aspirations. Many educated, professional women who seem appropriate for a political career work a “second shift” after returning home — and feel too time-crunched to run for office. American politics, long dominated by men, has a masculine ethos; women and men alike perceive political success as being linked to masculine traits such as self-promotion and fighting, and many do not think to encourage women to run for office. Women themselves often do not envision pursuing such a male-coded profession, which could make them appear to be more aggressive than nurturing. Additionally, women tend to be more election- and risk-averse than men and can be discouraged by barriers that men do not face, including sexist media coverage, intrusive questions about their life choices, overt sexual harassment, online misogynist abuse, or accusations of lying.

Concerned about the ambition gap among young women, our book Why Don’t Women Rule the World? was hatched over cocktail conversations at conferences and outlined in a cramped café during the 2017 Women’s March. The title is a tongue-in-cheek response to a serious question. We know girls achieve as well as boys (often better) in school. We know that some of the traits considered “feminine”, such as collaboration and listening, work well in leaders. We also know that women are underrepresented in positions of power throughout the world. As women in the male domain of academia and in leadership positions, each author also has her own experiences with misogyny—questioning our reproductive choices, calling into question our right to be in the room of decision-makers, having ideas ignored only to be repeated by a male colleague, being told to fall in line and not critically evaluate decision-making, and yes, “mansplaining.” So why don’t women rule, and why don’t they have more influence over the way the world is structured? More importantly, what can we do to ameliorate the ambition gap?

Currently, women make up only 23.2 percent of the House of Representatives, 26 percent of the Senate and 29.1 percent of U.S. state legislatures. When women run for political office, they are just as likely to win as men, research finds. But proportionally fewer women hold elected office, in part because fewer women run to begin with.

We know that young men’s political ambition begins to outpace young women’s ambition in late high school and early college. Thus, we structure research-based ambition activities at the end of each chapter of the book specifically related to the chapter material and prompt readers to think about their gendered assumptions of power and privilege, their role in reifying patriarchal structures, their own political ambition, and the ways they can address gender inequalities in their personal lives and in the broader world.  We promote strategies known to bolster women’s political ambitions. For example, women can practice a tactic called “name it, shame it, pivot” to respond to an overt sexist attack; they can also learn how to avoid internalizing coded attacks and microaggressions that leave them feeling like impostors. Those at colleges and universities can ask college-age women to plan to discuss how household and caregiving chores will be shared with a partner and can encourage them to re-frame political activism as a way to care for others.

Why social science? Attacks on women’s political ambitions, whether subtle or overt, will continue — and will discourage potential officeholders. Traditional gender socialization and the masculine ethos of politics will not disappear overnight. The cumulative effects of these factors can be overcome, but only if tackled directly by teaching women to anticipate and respond effectively, using research-based strategies that promote rather than decrease women’s political ambition.

LORI M. POLONI-STAUDINGER (PhD, Indiana University, 2005) is associate dean for research, personnel, and graduate programs in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a professor in the department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. Her research and publications focus on social movements, political contention and extrainstitutional participation, and political institutions, mainly in Western Europe. Her recent work examines questions around women and political violence. She was a Distinguished Fulbright Fellow at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, Austria and has served as a consultant for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. She also taught at University of the Basque Country in San Sebastian, Spain. She served as treasurer, vice president, and president of the Women’s Caucus for the Midwest Political Science Association. Lori is a Kettering Foundation Fellow and also served as vice president of a school board and serves as president of a nonprofit board in Flagstaff, Arizona.

J. CHERIE STRACHAN (PhD, State University of New York at Albany, 2000) is professor of Political Science at Central Michigan University. Her research addresses the effects of partisan polarization on elections, the role of civility in a democratic society, and the effect of college-level civic education interventions, deliberative forums, and campus organizations on students’ civic skills and identities. Her applied pedagogy research has resulted in on-going work with foundations such as the Kettering Foundation, The National Institute for Civil Discourse, and the American Democracy Project. Strachan currently serves as the Review Editor for the Journal of Political Science Education. She is also cofounder and codirector of the Consortium for Inter-Campus SoTL Research (CISR), which facilitates multicampus data collection for civic engagement and political science pedagogy research.

CANDICE D. ORTBALS (PhD, Indiana University, 2004) is professor of Political Science and University Professor at Abilene Christian University. Her publications relate to state feminism in Spain and gender and terrorism. She has been the newsletter editor, president-elect, and president of the Women’s Caucus of the Midwest Political Science Association. She also served as president for the National Women’s Caucus of Political Science. She has taught at the University of Seville, and she was winner of the Carrie Chapman Catt Prize for Research on Women and Politics. She has also received numerous grants from the government of Spain to study women in regional and local government.

SHANNON JENKINS (PhD, Loyola University Chicago, 2003) is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Interim Associate Dean of College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her research and publications focus on decision making in U.S. state legislatures, with a specific interest in the role of political organizations and gender in shaping outputs in these institutions, and the impact of specific pedagogical practices on student learning outcomes in political science courses. She has been a Fulbright Lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai in 2012 and at Yokohama National University and Tokai University in Japan in 2019. Previously, she taught at Central Michigan University. She was also elected to and currently serves on the School Committee in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

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