A Conversation with Richard L. Fox

Richard Fox is professor of political science in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, where he teaches courses on the U.S. Congress, elections and media and politics. His research, which has been funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on political ambition, electoral behavior and gender politics. He is the co-editor of “Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics” and co-author of “Women, Men, and U.S. Politics: 10 Big Questions (Norton 2017) Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics.” His work has appeared in journals including the American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, American Journal of Political Science. He has also published op-eds in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Fox was interviewed about women’s aspirations to hold high elective office 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.