Conversation

A Conversation with Richard L. Fox

Richard Fox, professor of political science, examines how gender affects voting behavior, elections and political ambition. He and his colleague, Jennifer L. Lawless, at American University in Washington, D.C., have found that a gender gap exists between men and women when it comes to political ambition. Fox’s op-eds have appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

Your research indicates that women have less interest in running for elected office than men — a gap in political ambition. Is the gap significant?
It’s very significant. We surveyed a pool of potential candidates, men and women, who could run for office some day, and we found a large gender gap. Men who are well situated to run for office are about 40 percent more likely to say they’d like to run for office or have thought about it than well-situated women.

Why do you think the gap exists?
The two main reasons we’ve uncovered are, first, women are less likely to be encouraged or recruited to run for office and, second, they’re less likely to consider themselves qualified to do it. Since the advent of the women’s movement, women’s opportunities in society have been expanding.

Is it surprising that the gap persists?
Yes, and no. We found women are less interested in running for office, which may have to do with the vestiges of history of men being in politics and women not. Maybe that gap will close over time. It’s also harder to have electoral change in our country. Incumbents almost always get re-elected. If 90 percent of officeholders are men, it’s hard to have sweeping change.

How early in life are women’s views about political ambition being shaped?
This past fall, we conducted a study of 4,000 high school and college students, between the ages of 13 and 25. We found when you ask high school boys and girls if they can see themselves running for office or being in Congress, there’s a slight gap. It’s often not statistically significant. When they get to college, there’s a huge gap. It seems that, at that point, the gender gap opens up.

Is it possible to compare today’s views to opinions in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s?
In the ’50s and ’60s, people were asked if their party nominated a woman for president would they vote for her. A substantial chunk of the population said they wouldn’t vote for a woman for president. Today it’s down to 5 percent. There may be more, but only 5 percent admit to it. In the early ’70s, people were asked whether they consider men or women to be more emotionally suited to being in politics. About 40 to 50 percent said men are better suited emotionally, and now it’s down to 15–20 percent, still a large percentage.

Did you find a difference in the political ambition gap when looking at responses from people in different regions of the country?
We’ve surveyed almost 14,000 men and women, and boys and girls, and we’ve found it doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re from, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, or a lawyer or educator. The gap is fairly constant. We expected some differences — maybe religion, profession, party or ideology would matter. None of those things matter. The gap is very constant across all these cleavages.

Richard L. Fox
Richard L. Fox specializes in in the areas of U.S. Congress, elections, media and politics and gender politics. In Spring 2012, he received a National Science Foundation Grant to study political interest and ambition among high school and college students.
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