Are women underrepresented in politics because they run in areas where their party is weak?

Posted by Paul, 2017-03-08

To mark International Women's Day, let's look at some political science research tackling questions of women and politics.

While research in the area of gender and politics is much broader than this, let's look at a few specific questions around elections, political activity and political knowledge. Are women underrepresented in parliaments because they run in less safe ridings? Are young girls more likely to run for office when they see high-profile women in prominent political roles? Are men more politically confident than women? Are women less likely than men to guess the answer to a political knowledge question?

Sacrificial lambs: Could women's underrepresentation in the Canadian House of Commons be explained by the fact women are disproportionately likely to end up running as candidates in ridings where their party is unlikely to win? Using data from elections held between 2004 to 2011, Melanee Thomas and Marc André Bodet found that this was true in every party, except for the Bloc Québécois. They also found that incumbent women end up running in less safe ridings than men.

Role models: Political scientists have repeatedly found evidence of the importance of role models in increasing the number of women who seek office. David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht found that the presence of high-profile women politicians makes adolescent girls more likely to indicate an interest in becoming politically active, particularly in families who talk about politics.

Election aversion: In a controlled laboratory experiment conducted by Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon, participants were asked to act as a representative for the group present. When the representative was to be chosen randomly, they found that men and women volunteered at equal rates. However, when the group was told that the representative would be chosen by election, men were more likely to volunteer than women. The authors offer a number of explanations, including internalized perceptions that competitive politics is somehow an arena for men, a finding consistent with other research that men often feel more politically confident than women.

Guessing: In surveys about political knowledge, men often demonstrate a higher level of political knowledge than women. While various studies have hypothesized all sorts of reasons for why this might be, an interesting study by Mary-Kate Lizotte and Andrew Sidman suggested one potential explanation: men are more likely to guess the answer to a political knowledge question, while women are more risk averse and more often than men answer that they don't know when they are unsure.