Gender, race, and political ambition: How intersectionality and frames influence interest in political office
Women may be encouraged to run for office when structural rather than personal challenges are emphasized to explain the gender gap, but effects vary by race and ethnicity.
Women are underrepresented in politics in part because they have less interest than men in running for political office. This gender gap in political ambition has largely been explained in one of two narrative frames:
- Supply-side explanations emphasize factors that affect women’s interest in pursuing political office, such as lack of self-confidence, the “second shift” of household work, and career choices influenced by gender role socialization, which may draw women to less competitive paths.
- Demand-side explanations emphasize factors in the political system that limit women’s opportunities to pursue political office, in particular lower recruitment of women due to stereotypes and discrimination against them on the basis of gender.
Little is known about how these narratives impact political ambition, especially among women of color, whose challenges and motivations are influenced by the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity. However, past research has shown that attributing failure to discrimination (a demand-side explanation) can increase performance and self-esteem among women and/or people of color by allowing them to discount the likelihood of personal failing. On the other hand, emphasizing individual factors in failure (supply-side explanations) can lead to stereotype threat; that is, a situation in which women and/or people of color feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes, which can lead to avoidance.
In this study, the authors hypothesize that supply explanations will reduce women’s political ambition, while demand explanations increase it, and that supply explanations will have a greater effect on women of color relative to white women. In an online experiment, they presented participants with information about the gender gap in political ambition, accompanied by either a supply or a demand explanation. They then measured participants’ political ambition and compared responses between women and men, and between Asian, Black, Latinx, and white respondents.
When using a demand-side explanation pointing to lower party recruitment of women, rather than a supply-side explanation pointing to personal factors such as a lack of confidence in qualifications or lack of time due to caregiving responsibilities, the overall gender gap in political ambition disappeared—but effects were mixed for women of color.
- Overall, women of all racial/ethnic backgrounds reported significantly lower political ambition than men (-0.16 vs. 0.08, with a gender gap of 0.24). Political ambition varied among men and women across racial/ethnic groups, but the gender gap remained similar.
- Overall, women of all racial/ethnic backgrounds who read a supply explanation reported significantly lower political ambition compared to women who read a demand explanation (-0.13 vs. 0.07). However, effects were inconsistent across racial groups.
- Asian women and white women reported significantly higher political ambition after reading a demand explanation than after reading a supply explanation.
- However, Black women reported lower political ambition after reading a demand explanation than after reading a supply explanation, although the difference was not significant.
- Latina women reported no difference in political ambition whether they read a demand explanation or a supply explanation.
- Overall, men of all racial/ethnic backgrounds had similar levels of political ambition regardless of whether they read a supply or demand explanation.
- After a supply explanation, women continued to have significantly lower political ambition than men; however, after a demand explanation, women and men expressed similar levels of political ambition, closing the ambition gender gap.
These findings suggest that emphasizing personal barriers to women’s political ambition may contribute to the gender gap in political representation, while an emphasis on outside challenges may reduce the gap by encouraging more women to run. However, messages that encourage white and Asian women may dissuade black women and overlook Latinas, indicating the need for a better intersectional understanding of women’s interest in political office.
The study recruited 656 college students or graduates who were US citizens (251 women; 27 Asian women, 24 Black women, 34 Latinx women, 157 white women) through Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of 7 short paragraphs, each offering a different explanation for women’s political underrepresentation, chosen to reflect dominant emphases in current US scholarship. Approximating the balance of dominant perspectives, 5 conditions offered supply-side explanations emphasizing personal factors, namely, time, qualifications, socialization, knowledge, and background; and 2 offered demand-side explanations emphasizing a factor in the political system, namely, recruitment. After reading the assigned paragraph, participants responded to 3 questions measuring political ambition. The authors note caution on their results for racial and ethnic groups given the small sample sizes.