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Do Women Have an Inner Glass Ceiling?

That's the reason circulating in the media for why more women aren't in politics. That conclusion is convenient -- and flawed.
 
 
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Imagine this: You are running for Congress, campaigning and trying to carry out all your usual obligations. Then one morning your home burns down. While you and your family escape unharmed, almost every single thing you owned has disappeared. How long would you take before you'd start campaigning again? Six months? A year? Never?

These events are not imaginary, but something which happened to Darcy Burner and her family on the first of July. She took a campaign break of eighteen days. Eighteen days. Now that is some determination! We might even call this political ambition, a great desire to serve the public no matter what.

Burner is not the only woman who has demonstrated such stamina and focus in political life. Madeline Albright, the first female Secretary of State of the United States, once said that she wanted to do more than to just maintain the achievements of earlier Secretaries of State: she wanted to aim higher. Carol Moseley Brown had enough political ambition not only to become the first female African-American Senator in the United States Congress, but to run for the president of the United States. And we are all familiar with Hilary Clinton's recent presidential run and political ambition.

Yet Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist, thinks that it is the lack of political ambition which keeps women away from participating in political life. It's not discrimination that keeps the number of American women in Congress at 16 percent; the problem, she writes, is that women have an "inner glass ceiling": a tendency to give up too soon and too easily, a tendency to shirk away from the feistiness of political battles, a tendency to underrate their own abilities.

Marcus learned this from a recent Brookings Institute study by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox, which is summarized like this: "In this report, we argue that the fundamental reason for women's under-representation is that they don't run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it and women don't."

It's certainly a convenient conclusion -- If the reason for so few women in political decision-making roles is their own unwillingness to play the game, we as a society don't have to do anything to change the situation. It's up to women themselves to become more ambitious, and if they don't, well, perhaps it's all to do with biological differences between men and women. Right?

Caryl Rivers, a media critic, author and expert on the popularizations of gender science points out the great appeal of such explanations, especially now that the decoding of the human genome is in the news almost daily: "If you take the extreme view of gender differences as all biological, then if girls trail boys in math scores, say, no action is necessary. This despite the fact that Korean girls score higher than American boys."

Never mind if scientific studies show that things like the genetics of "political ambition" remain science-fiction; to appeal to biology allows us all not to worry about the effects of culture or gender roles in the division of labor. If glass ceilings are internal, then the problems belong to the individual women and individual women alone. Perhaps they are not problems at all, but Just The Way Things Are?

I almost hesitate to break the peace and comfort of that explanation, but break it I must, if not for any other reason than the one that the Lawless and Fox study isn't about "political ambition" in the colloquial sense of the term (how would one even go about measuring that?) but about studying the process, which leads a qualified individual to either decide to run for political office or not.

For this purpose, the study selected several thousand men and women from the fields that are usually seen as good launching pads for political careers -- law, business, education and political activism -- and then asked them questions about their political plans, attitudes and life situations, both in 2001 and in 2008.

The answers to these questions showed that equally qualified men and women may have different family responsibilities, different levels of external encouragement and support, different views about the political environment, different assessments about their own competence and different feelings about the negative aspects of campaigning. Some of these may be related to the way we usually understand the term "political ambition," but others have more to do with the institutional constraints of American politics or with socially accepted gender roles.

To give just one example of the latter, 60 percent of women with children in the study told the researchers that they were the primary caregivers for their children, while 60 percent of the men with children in the study described their partner as the primary caregiver. Given that all the study subjects already had careers, entering politics would mean a third job for these women but only a second job for the men.

The study design doesn't let us measure what the actual impact of the different family obligations might be, but Ilana Goldberg, whose organization She Should Run encourages women to run for elected office, says that the most common reason women give when deciding not to run for office is, "maybe when the children are all grown." This has nothing to do with "political ambition" -- rather, it has everything to do with cultural expectations about who is responsible for the children and who has a built-in support system.

Cultural expectations also influence the amount of encouragement that men and women receive in pursuing their political goals. According to the study results, men were more likely than women to have been encouraged to run both by people in politics and by their friends and families (though this difference was reduced in the most recent round of the study by the efforts of advocacy groups who contact and encourage qualified women to seek office). Still, as Sandeep Kaushik of Darcy Burner's campaign noted, it is not unusual for women who run and lose their first race to be told that they "have had their turn" and that they should relinquish further thoughts of running, to step aside and to let someone else have a chance. Such values are embedded in the culture, not in the woman's own political ambition. But their final impact might well be to make women less likely to stay in politics.

Let's add another layer of complication to the notion of an "internal glass ceiling" by noting that the United States ranks 68th in the world in the proportion of women in national legislatures. Either 67 countries have women with more ambitious genes or both cultural values and the institutional aspects of political systems matter. It also means that the United States could do a lot better in this particular international competition.

Multi-party countries tend to have more women in politics, and countries with long-standing traditions of women in politics (such as the Nordic countries) also have more women in elected office. Finnish political scientist Johanna Kantola, an expert on women and politics in Europe, notes that the very first parliament for which women were allowed to run (in 1907 Finland -- then a grand duchy of Russia)elected nineteen women out of a total of 200 representatives. That Finland a hundred years later has a female president and a parliament that is 42 percent female is therefore not that surprising. Change tends to happen slowly and cumulatively over time -- often with two steps forwards and one step back -- but imagine what might have happened if some enterprising Finnish journalist in 1907 had written about those nineteen women as a sign of women's lesser political ambition.

The United States doesn't have as long a history of women's participation in electoral politics. Ninety of the 246 women who have ever served in the U.S. Congress are current members; there are still Americans alive who were born before women had the right to vote. In short, the story of women's participation in the U.S. political scene is at its early stages, and it is far too premature to account for the dearth of women by using biological excuses.

But would such excuses have any place even if they were true? Suppose that women indeed were less eager to wage political warfare, less eager to fight negative campaigns, less thick-skinned altogether. Would that justify a collective shrugging of shoulders about the numbers of women in elected office? Or might we ask ourselves whether a representative democratic system can truly represent all of its citizens if the game itself is rigged in a way that only appeals to some of us? Is it really necessary to see politics as "war by other means" or to arrange politics in such a way that someone with childcare obligations cannot fully participate -- at least not without getting attacked for that very participation?

What is it that we might be losing if we decided on that course? Media critic Caryl Rivers says we might lose the life experience women have of the issues that tend to matter more for women than for men. "Because of the ways gender still affects our roles in life, women are more likely to pay attention to issues such as childcare and eldercare." We would lose certain points of view on matters that are brought up in the political process, and we might miss some important issues altogether. This will remain true as long as certain aspects of our life experiences are gendered, whether the reasons for such gendering are cultural or biological or both.

Anyone who followed the Clarence Thomas hearings in the early 1990s remembers that men and women had, on average, very different experiences and attitudes concerning the phenomenon of sexual harassment, and so one may also realize that a mostly-male Congress might not be the best body to create laws which reflect diverse perspectives.

Citizens of other countries have learned that much through experience. Kantola argues that in Finland, women's early participation in electoral politics influenced the introduction of a national pensions system and the public support of childcare in ways which might not have happened without the direct input from elected female representatives.

Still not convinced of the importance of having more women run for office in the United States? Then imagine this: Suppose that only 16 percent of U.S. Congresspeople were male, that only 18 percent of state governors were men, that men were a mere 24 percent of state legislators and only 10 percent of big-city mayors. Given that nearly 50 percent of all Americans are men, doesn't that sound pretty unrepresentative to you? Yet when the same numbers are applied to women (who are more than 50 percent of all Americans), we are willing to entertain the idea that women just lack "political ambition."

And what happens when women do have political ambition? They get the Hillary Clinton treatment. The calls for her to quit the Democratic Primary started early and grew louder over time. Andrew O'Hagan wrote in early April: "The people seem to know well enough, and the time has come for Hillary Clinton to show that her beliefs are stronger than her ambitions, by making way for the Democrat who can win the presidency." Anne Applebaum chimed in with this in May: "If you've found the election hard to follow of late, that's because the only real issue at stake is Hillary Clinton's extraordinary, irrational, overwhelming ambition."

Perhaps her ambition was labeled as "extraordinary and irrational" at least partly because women are not supposed to have it. "Nice" women are supposed to bow out when asked nicely. Isn't that the reason why it was so very easy for Ruth Marcus to misread the Brookings study as saying something about women's innate ambition rather than about the process by which people decide to run -- a process which presents different obstacles to men and women? Isn't that perhaps one reason why Hillary Clinton's determination to stay in the race caused so much rage on many blogs and in many columns? Political ambition is neither "nice" nor "ladylike."

We can't answer these questions on the basis of Clinton's media treatment alone. She is, after all, only one woman. Maybe other women will not be treated so harshly when they compete strongly in an equally important race. Certainly we'll get the answers in time, assuming that more and more women run for the highest electoral office. The catch-22, though, is that women across the country have seen how the media treated Clinton, and for women considering careers in politics, the threat of being treated similarly may be a significant deterrent. The Lawless and Fox study found that women are more likely than men to worry about the nasty aspects of political campaigns. What the study did not point out is that women may also be treated more nastily than men in those campaigns, if not by the competition, then by the press.

It could be that all women carry little glass ceilings inside their heads, which stop them reaching for the stars. It could be. But those glass ceilings are better understood as internalized knowledge about the very real cultural and gender-based obstacles women in American politics have to face. There are equality-minded women and men trying to remove some of the institutional blockades, and we can support those efforts through advocacy organizations such as the White House Project, She Should Run and Emily's List. These organizations encourage women to run and provide them with crucial information and support. They fill up the "encouragement gap" detailed in the Lawless and Fox study.

We can also work to make sure that women with children are not handicapped at the starting lines of the political races. We can make sure that childcare is available for all families and that reasonable working hours are mandated. We can provide alternative voices when the media portrays female politicians as poor mothers or when the criticism of a female politician has sexist undertones. We can cast a critical eye on various political customs and institutions and ask if they affect all politicians equally or if they were something created when politics was an all-male sport, with then unforeseen negative consequences for women running today.

All this will help to punch holes in those glass ceilings, whether internalized or not.

J. Goodrich is an economist. Her writing has been published in the American Prospect and Ms. magazine and on various political Web sites. She also blogs at Echidne of the Snakes .