The Nature and Nurture of Women’s Political Participation

The disparity between male and female holders of political office has been the focus of much of the research on women and electoral politics in the United States. Despite making up roughly half of the population women make up only 19% of Congress, 12% of state governors, 24% of state legislators, and of the top 100 largest cities only 16% have female mayors [1].

Historically women have made up a small percentage of U.S. politicians. Following the election of the first female member of Congress in 1916 women’s representation grew slowly, and by 1981 women made up fewer than 5% of Congress [2]. It was only until the end of the 20th century that we saw a rapid increase in the number of female members of congress. On a global scale, there is considerable variation in women’s political representation. Across countries the average rate of female representation is 20% with several countries having women make up over 40% of their lower or single house and other – mostly Muslims – countries with zero women in politics [3].

women in politics

The topic of this post will be the causes of this disparity in the context of the United States. The two main categories of potential causes are those that involve the evolved differences in male and female psychology and those that involve the different ways that males and females are socialized such as differences in upbringing, social validation, and how gender role attitudes shape the way people view men and women differently. Although these two categories are by no means mutually exclusive their acceptance does seems to be somewhat divided across ideological lines. As the evolutionary psychologists David Buss and David Schmitt articulate in their paper published in a special edition of the feminist journal Sex Roles, these different approaches to sex differences have been responsible for the “uneasy history of feminism and evolutionary psychology” [4].

When it comes to the influence of socialization and gender roles, one of the most direct ways that they can prevent women from obtaining elected office is if the electorate is biased against female candidates and so as a result would cause women to earn fewer votes than comparable male candidates. The extent to which this effect is responsible for women’s under-representation in the past can be debated, but presently there is no evidence that female candidates face a disadvantage on Election Day. As Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox explain in their paper on the under-representation of women in politics published by the Women & Politics Institute, “Study after study finds that, when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. No differences emerge in women and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success. Yet women remain severely under-represented” [5].

leaders women ruleIndeed, experimental evidence also supports the idea that people are generally not biased against female candidates. Although, as a 2008 survey by Pew Research demonstrates, there does seem to be somewhat of a paradox when it comes to public perceptions about female political leaders [6]. The survey found that when it comes to traits that are valued in leadership respondents indicated that they thought honesty, intelligence, compassion, outgoingness, and creativity were more typically found in women than in men. The only trait rated more typical of men was decisiveness. But despite these seemingly favorable attitudes towards female leaders, respondents tended to endorse the belief that men made better political leaders rather than the reverse. While most said they believed that men and women make equally good political leaders, 21% of respondents favored male leaders verses only 6% who favored female leaders. And when asked why there aren’t more women in top elective offices the top three reasons chosen cited some kind of discrimination or negative biases towards women while the three least popular responses involved women lacking ability or experience. So it seems that the public tends to favor female leaders over men when it comes to most aspects of leadership and cites discrimination and bias for women’s under-representation, but nevertheless 1 in 5 Americans hold the view that men make better leaders than women. Another survey by Pew asked respondents to rate their approval and willingness to vote for a hypothetical candidate. They were either shown Ann Clark or Andrew Clark – similar in every respect besides their gender. And as the report states, “The results were clear: Gender didn’t matter. Ann Clark and Andrew Clark got about the same number of ‘votes’ from their respective samples.” So overall, the mixed perceptions of female leaders do not seem to materialize into biases on the individual level and thus a concordance of evidence suggests that female candidates are not discriminated against when it comes to voting.

Given these consistent findings researchers of gender and politics have turned their attention to another potential source of women’s under-representation in elected office: political ambition. Sex differences in political ambitions have been found among both high school and college students as well within the political “eligibility pool” – vocations from which most political candidates emerge from such as law, business, education, and political activism . From as early as high school males show a greater desire to hold political office in the future and are more interested and involved in politics than females [7]. According to the previously mentioned paper by Lawless and Fox women from the eligibility pool of political candidates express not only lower political ambition than men but also lower self-confidence in their political abilities, less competitiveness, and more aversion to risk-taking [5]. Women are also more likely than men to view typical aspects of campaigning such as the loss of privacy as well as having to dealing with the press more negatively and are more likely than men to perceive elections are highly competitive and biased against women.

Given these differences between the sexes in political ambition and representation in political office then next question is: What are the root causes of these differences? As mentioned above, the two main types of explanations for sex differences behavior are differences in social influences and differences in evolved biological predispositions.

Beginning with the first possible source of sex differences in political ambition we turn to a simple test of how cultural factors explain variation in women’s political participation. In 2007 Pew asked 45 countries from all over the globe about which sex makes better political leaders [8]. What we find is that the percentage of people in a country who said both men and women make equally good political leaders correlates at 0.51 with the percentage of women holding political office in that country. And we find a similarly sized but negative correlation of 0.5 between the percentage of people who said that men make better political leaders and the percentage of women holding political office. Clearly then the notion that gender role attitudes play a role in women’s political under-representation on a global scale receives strong empirical support. But what about the United States specifically? Using an index of social liberalism created by Richard Morrill of the University of Washington we see that the level of a state’s social liberalism correlates at 0.63 with the percentage of the state legislature that is made up of women [9]. This means that variation in social liberalism can account for 40% of the variation in women’s representation in state level politics. Given this relationship we would expect that if the United States as a whole was as socially liberal as the state of Washington then female representation in state politics would be about 34% rather than 24% as it is at now.

So, in addition to the clear role that social factors play in women’s lack of political ambition do evolved biological differences between the sexes also play a role? Evolutionary psychology says that the answer is likely yes. Assuming that seeking and holding political office involves risk taking and is at least partially motivated by competitiveness and a desire for status and social dominance then there several reasons why, according to evolutionary theory, we would expect women to be less politically ambitious today as a result of differential selection of certain psychological traits over our evolutionary history.

In terms of evolution the most fundamental difference between human males and females is the way in which they reproduce. There is a large asymmetry between the sexes in the amount of risk and investment involved in reproduction. Women must bear a child for nine months and, especially in our evolutionary past, undergo the potentially deadly process of childbirth. Men on the other hand need only to have sex. As Steven Pinker puts it in his book How the Mind Works, “She contributes nine months of pregnancy … and two to four years of nursing. He contributes a few minutes of sex and a teaspoon of semen” [10]. As a result of these differences male reproductive success is greatly more variable than that of females. There are only so many wombs capable of bearing children but an overabundance of semen, meaning that any mate accrued by one man comes at the expense of potential mate lost for another man. Thus, according to evolutionary theory, competitiveness among women will be under much less selection pressure than it is for men since men have much more to gain and lose in regard to access to mates. Dominance and status can provide men with a greater ability to entice potential mates with the promise of resources, protection, and social connections. In addition, dominance and status would make it easier for a man to engage in intrasexual aggression or coercion to simply take the mates of less dominant men. And so given this we would expect greater dominance and status-seeking to have evolved in males. Another result of this asymmetry in reproductive strategies is that males would stand to benefit more from risk taking and to lose more from failing to take risks since failing to secure a mate is a much more likely fate for a male than a female.

That’s a well and good in theory, but is there any evidence than men even show the higher level of dominance, competitiveness, and risk taking than evolutionary psychology predicts? Thankfully, yes!


As explained in a 1990 issue of the journal American Psychologist by Eleanor Maccoby, a renowned researcher in the field of developmental psychology and sex differences in psychology, “Boys in their groups are more likely than girls in all-girl groups to interrupt one another; use commands, threats, or boasts of authority; refuse to comply with another child’s demand; … top someone else’s story; or call another child names. Girls in all-groups, on the other hand, are more likely than boys to express agreement with what another speaker has just said, pause to give another girl a chance to speak, or when starting a speaking turn, acknowledge a point previously made by another speaker. This account indicates that among boys, speech serves largely egoistic functions and is used to establish and protect an individual’s turf. Among girls, conversation is a more socially binding process” [11]. Indeed, further evidence from cross-cultural studies comes to similar conclusions. In their 1988 book Children of Different Worlds Beatrice Whiting and Carolyn Edwards report on the results of their study that found that across multiple cultures boys tend to behave more physically aggressive, make more displays of egoistic dominance, and seek attention from others while girls tend to behave more nurturing and socially [12]. And many studies have found that among adults males tend to score higher than females on a scale of social dominance that asks participants about agreement with statements such as “Some people are just inferior to others” and “Only the best people should get ahead in this world” [13]. This pattern of higher male social dominance also holds constant when looking at across different age cohorts, cultural groups, income levels, and political affiliations [14].


In addition to dominance men also tend to be more competitive than women in many different environments. In a 2011 article published in the journal Annual Review of Economics Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund review studies on sex differences in competitiveness [15]. They conclude that men display more competitiveness in laboratory settings as well as in the domain sports and educational competitions by showing a greater willingness to enter tournaments as well as performing better under highly competitive conditions.

Risk Taking

And finally, when it comes to risk taking we find consistent sex differences across various types of risky behavior. A 1999 meta-analysis of 150 different studies published in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that when it comes to self-reported and observed behaviors males show greater risk taking in areas such as driving, psychical activities, gambling, intellectual tests, and games that involve risk of psychical harm [16]. Although it is not clear which sex is better at taking risks since, as the researchers note, men often take risks when it is clearly a bad idea to do so while women often decline to take risks even in fairly safe situations where taking a risk was a good idea.

So the prediction made by evolutionary psychology that men will be more dominant, competitive, and risk taking than women is supported by empirical evidence. But there is more to the theory than just sex differences. A crucial aspect is that these traits were selected for in men because they conferred some sort of reproductive advantage. Therefore we would expect these traits to be most prevalent in mating contexts as well actually conferring reproductive advantages. Indeed, several studies have found that the presence of women – especially attractive women – influence male behavior in the way evolutionary psychology predicts. For men, simply being exposed to advertisements containing attractive women caused them to indicate a substantially higher level of financial ambition versus men exposed to advertisements containing unattractive women [17]. A similar study found that having short conversation with a young woman caused men increase the importance they attached to obtaining material wealth [18]. And in online dating men are more likely than women to overstate their income and education [19]. In regard to risk taking a study of university undergrads found that men who were interested in pursuing sexual interests were more likely to engage in financial risk taking when they were exposed to images of attractive women as opposed to unattractive women [20]. Another study of skateboarders also found that the presence of women increased the amount of risky moves that male skateboarders made [21]. And men are more likely to take a risk by crossing a busy intersection when in the presence of a woman [22]. In addition to modifying their behavior in response to the presence of potential mates several studies have confirmed that these behaviors such as increased dominance and status are still associated with reproductive advantages among men in modern times despite legally enforced monogamy. For instance, men who earn more and have higher social status have more sex and more children than men of lower status [23][24]. Also, men who score higher on measures of social dominance admit to having more extra-marital affairs [25]. And high-status men also tend to seek out younger and more physically attractive women – two indicators of fertility and thus reproductive potential [26].

Therefore, as evolutionary theory predicts and as the empirical evidence bears out, traits in males such as dominance, competitiveness, and risk taking all appear to have been selected for over the course of our evolutionary past. And since these traits are all relevant to running for and holding political office it seems highly likely that part of the disparity in political ambition between males and females is accounted for by differences in evolved biological predisposition. Though, at the same time, it is clear that social influences such as the gender role traditionalism of social conservatism likely also impede women’s political ambition in the United States given the strong positive correlation between the social liberalism of a state and the proportion of its state legislator that is made up by women.


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