Does Exposure to Gender Role Models Increase Women’s Political Ambition? A Field Experiment with Politicians

Exposure to gender role models increases women’s interest in political current events but does not increase their ambition to become involved in politics.



There is a persistent gender gap in willingness and interest in running for political office. A frequently-cited solution to this gender gap is to increase women’s political ambition by exposing them to role models, such as, successful female politicians. For instance, studies have found that the presence of a female role model may help women’s performance on math tests, mid-level role models may be successful in inspiring young women, and exposure to highly successful female role models may improve women’s performance and self-evaluation in stressful leadership tasks.

However, there is little field experimental evidence about whether exposure to female politician role models in real world settings (as opposed to experimental lab settings) can increase women’s political ambition. In this field experiment, researchers investigate whether the exposure to female politician role models at a prominent Swiss university has a positive effect on women students’ interest in politics and their political ambition.


Exposure to gender role models increases women’s interest in political current events but does not have a positive effect on their political ambition.

  • Women exposed to female politician role models were more likely to seek information and follow news about the ongoing national election campaign.
  • However, this exposure to role models did not have a positive effect on women’s political ambition, in their behaviors and attitudes.
    • Women exposed to female politician role models were equally likely—and sometimes even less likely—than women who were not exposed to these role models to pursue a mentorship opportunity related to closing the gender gap in politics and to express a self-reported interest in running for office.

One possible explanation for these findings is that the female politician role models in the study did not follow motivational scripts when speaking with the younger women mentees, but rather spoke candidly about their own experiences and challenges faced as a woman in politics. This study’s outcomes should motivate future studies about the impact of female role models in realistic settings, and specifically research to investigate the specific types of events or messaging are most effective in increasing women’s political ambition.


Researchers worked with the Career Services and the student union at a prominent Swiss university to identify the sample of 620 female students for the experiment. These students were randomly assigned to the treatment group (which received a special email invitation to a networking event) and the control group (which received no email). The networking event, co-organized by the Frauenzentrale Zürich, a non-partisan Swiss NGO that promotes gender equality, allowed participants to listen to and interact with prominent female leaders (4 female politicians and 1 female businesswoman). The event was invitation-only. The speakers were not given specific scripts to follow but were instead asked to speak about their personal career experiences. The politicians represented four parties from across the Swiss political spectrum and varied in age from 37 to 51.

The attitudinal outcomes of the intervention were measured two weeks after the event as part of a two-wave panel survey that were answered by the treatment and the control group. Separate from this event, the university also advertised for an assistant and mentoring position with Frauenzentrale Zürich, which was advertised to all 620 students, in the treatment and control groups. The outcomes that the study was measuring were whether attending the networking event with role models increased the likelihood that female students: 1) applied to the assistant and mentoring position, 2) self-reported an interest in running for office, 3) sought information about the ongoing national election.

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