Why Women Don’t Run: Experimental Evidence on Gender Differences in Political Competition Aversion
Highlighting the competitive nature of the political process discourages politically active women—but not men—from seeking information on running for office.
Women are greatly underrepresented in leadership positions across a range of fields. In U.S. politics, women hold only a fifth of elected congressional offices, a quarter of state legislative seats, and a tenth of governorships. Previous research indicates that women have less ambition for leadership positions, which may be explained in part by greater aversion than men to competitive environments. This field experiment investigates whether an emphasis on competition reduces political leadership ambition among politically active women, contributing to the gender gap. Specifically, the authors examined whether reading a message highlighting the competitive nature of political campaigns reduced women’s interest in learning more about running for office. This study had three major contributions to the field: 1) use of a sample of highly political individuals who are well positioned to enter political roles, 2) measurement of behavioral outcomes (i.e. how much time participants spent learning about running for office) rather than just self-reported attitudes or interest, and 3) randomization of participants to isolate the effects of competitiveness on ambition.
When the survey message emphasized the competitive nature of running for office (known as a “competitive priming message”), women’s interest in political office decreased while men’s interest was unaffected.
- Among the Republican caucus-goers, who were considered to be highly politically active due to their willingness to invest time into political causes, the percent of women who wanted to learn more about running for office was lower after the competitive priming message than the neutral message (5% versus 20%).
- Among the Republican caucus goers, a third of men chose to learn more about running for office, regardless of whether they received the competitive priming message or the neutral message.
- Though there was a gender gap in both cases for the Republican caucus goers, it was larger for the competitive message compared to the neutral message.
- There was a 26 percentage point difference in desire to learn more about running for office between men and women who received the competitive message versus a 13 percentage point difference for the neutral message. This pattern was confirmed at all three opportunities to click through and learn more.
- Among a group of online workers that were included to test if the same effects hold true outside of people who are highly politically active, the percent of women in this group who wanted to learn more about running for office was lower after the competitive priming message than the neutral message (14% versus 25%).
- Among the online labor market group, over a quarter of men chose to learn more about running for office, regardless of whether they received the competitive priming message or the neutral message.
- Unlike the caucus-goers, there was no gender gap after the neutral message for the online labor market group, but there was a gender gap of 15 percentage points between men and women’s interest in learning more after the competitive priming message. This pattern was confirmed at all three opportunities to click through and learn more.
In short, these findings suggest that women’s aversion to competition contributes to a gender gap in political leadership ambition.
The first experiment recruited 317 survey respondents (38% female) through an email invitation to 6,155 Republican caucus-goers from a single county in a primarily suburban area in Western United States. The second experiment recruited 1,221 online workers (46% female) to respond to a survey about civic engagement, through a task posted to the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform and restricted to U.S.-based respondents. The two experiments then proceeded with an identical design. Respondents were randomized by gender to receive either a control message or a competitive priming message. The control message used neutral language, inviting participants to consider running for office and describing the first steps of the process. The competitive priming message first asked subjects if they liked political debate and competitive environments, then described the competitive aspect of the political process, before inviting subjects to consider running for office. Respondents were offered three successive opportunities to click through and view further information about running for office.