Power, Conflict, and Community: How Gendered Views of Political Power Influence Women’s Political Ambition

Women’s perceptions of the tasks and goals associated with a political career impact their level of political ambition.


Previous research has shown that women are less likely than men to run for political office or express interest in a political career. This gender gap, known as the “political ambition gap,” is one factor that contributes to the underrepresentation of women in elected positions. One possible reason for the political ambition gap is that women may be socialized to be less interested than men in the stereotypical goals of a political career.  Specifically, it is important to look into what men and women perceive are the goals of a political career, and how these perceptions affect women’s political ambition.

The authors examine whether political careers are perceived as promoting “power goals” like self-promotion and competition, over “communal goals,” like helping others.  They also examine whether there are gender differences in men and women’s views of these goal types, and whether political careers are perceived as having a “masculinized ethos,” (whether these careers are seen as promoting goals that favored by men more than women).  Finally, the researchers considered whether changing the manner in which the job of being a politician is described to emphasize communal goals, rather than power goals, impacts women’s level of political ambition.


Women’s perceptions of being a politician and the tasks and goals they associate with that job, impact their level of political ambition.

  • Men and women viewed the job of being a politician as promoting “power goals,” like self-promotion and competition, more than “communal goals,” like helping others (a mean of 5.81 vs. 4.94 on a 7 point scale). This difference was statistically significant.
  • Women respondents expressed slightly less interest in the tasks of a political career associated with power goals than did men (a mean of 2.12 for women vs. 2.25 for men on a 10 point scale, a marginally significant difference), but expressed the same level of interest in tasks associated with communal goals. 
  • Women respondents expressed less interest in conflict than did men (a mean of 4.03 for women vs. 4.58 for men on a 5 point scale), and they also expressed less interest in engaging in potentially contentious political discussions than did men (a mean of 3.66 for women vs. 4.13 for men on a 7-point scale). Both of these differences were statistically significant.
  • Women’s reduced interest in conflict and in tasks related to power goals is a statistically significant route by which gender is related to political ambition. This finding was based on statistical mediation analysis to measure the relationship between gender, conflict tolerance and interest in power goals.
  • When a political career was described in a manner that emphasized tasks associated with power goals, women expressed less interest in that career, and this difference was statistically significant (a mean of 3.23 for women vs. 3.89 for men on a 7-point scale). 
  • When a political career was described in a manner that emphasized tasks associated with communal goals, there was no statistically significant difference between men and women’s expressed interest in the career (a mean of 3.7 for women vs. 3.66 for men).

In sum, men and women see political careers as having a “masculinized ethos” that emphasizes fulfillment of power-related goals, more than communal goals. Reframing the way that political careers are described to emphasize aspects of the job related to communal goals reduces the political ambition gap. The authors suggest that the media’s focus on “horse race” campaign coverage and on conflict and partisan bickering may discourage women from seeking elected office, and that those recruiting women to run for office may be more successful if they frame their appeals in communal terms.


The authors conducted the study using 3 samples.  In the first sample, 413 students from a Midwestern public university, 61 percent of whom were female, were administered a questionnaire in person in a classroom in which they were asked to rate various careers, including a career in Congress, on a numeric scale reflecting how much they believed the career would fulfill a variety of goals. The students were then asked to read a paragraph describing activities in a political career that either framed the job as having a communal or power/independence focus.  After reading the paragraph, the students were asked to rate how “enjoyable” they believed a political career would be.

In the second sample, the authors administered an online questionnaire to 327 college students, 62 percent of whom were male, using an established online marketplace. The survey asked respondents one of three differently worded questions aimed at assessing their ambition to run for political office. The students were also asked to rate on a numeric scale their level of interest in 20 different political tasks and indicate the percent of time they perceived lawmakers to spend on various tasks.

In the third sample, the authors administered an online questionnaire to 353 adults, 63 percent of whom were male and 84% college graduates, using the same online marketplace as the student study. The questionnaire validated questions from the online student study and asked respondents questions aimed at eliciting their level of comfort with contentious political discussions and assessing their conflict management style.

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