One day after Ann Romney’s Republican National Convention speech, The Associated Press devoted an entire article to her “tasteful, conservative and appropriate wardrobe.” Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered an issue-packed endorsement of Mitt Romney, and Wall Street Journal Live responded with a two-minute video segment, “How to avoid Condi Rice lipstick on teeth.”
Media references to the physical appearance of women in leadership are so ubiquitous that most of us barely notice them. Last week’s Republican convention produced a typical sampling.
Yet over time the media’s portrayal of women has a profound deterrent effect, keeping capable potential officeholders from seeking elective position.
That’s a premise of the documentary “Miss Representation,” screened last week at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and sponsored by National Panhellenic Conference. The film featured extensive video clips of television pundits referring to physical attributes of candidates, most notably Democrat Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential run, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The anecdotal evidence is echoed in a “political ambition study” by the Women and Politics Institute of American University. Women just don’t want to put themselves “out there.”
Although women entered politics in growing numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum stalled in the early 2000s, and 2010 saw a net decrease of women in the U.S. House and state legislatures. Women hold just under 17 percent of the seats in Congress compared with 45 percent in Sweden, 36 percent in Spain and 33 percent in New Zealand.
Nationally, women account for 23.6 percent of state legislative seats and 22.4 percent of statewide elective offices. In Indiana, they are 21 percent of the Indiana House and 20 percent of the State Senate. Two of Indiana’s seven statewide officeholders are women — Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and Secretary of State Connie Lawson — although the latter was appointed, not elected, after her predecessor left office due to a voting fraud conviction.
The disparity between men and women in elective office is not the result of discrimination but the failure of women to seek office in the first place, concludes the ambition study.
“In terms of fundraising and vote totals, the consensus among researchers is the absence of overt gender bias on Election Day. When women run for office, regardless of the position they seek, they are just as likely as their male counterparts to win their races.”
So why don’t women run in proportion to their percentage of the population, 50.8 percent? The reasons are complex but boil down to a gender gap in ambition that has widened from a decade ago, the study says.
In 2001, when asked, “Are you interested in running for office in the future,” 18 percent of women said yes, as did 23 percent of men. In 2011, only 14 percent of women said yes compared to 22 percent of men.
Ironically, the 2008 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin reinforced women’s fears of the electoral process. A survey of potential female candidates found that 69 percent believed Clinton and Palin were subject to biased media coverage and 54 percent felt too much attention was paid to their looks.
Such perceptions contribute to self-doubt when deciding whether to seek office. Consider that men are 60 percent more likely than women to rate themselves as “well qualified” for office; women are twice as likely as men to rate themselves as “not at all qualified.” The only legitimate qualification for elective office is being a concerned citizen, and men have no corner on that market.
If political parties want more women in office, they need to recruit them. When women are encouraged to run by party leaders and activists, they are just as apt to respond positively as men. “Recruiting early and recruiting often are vital ingredients for closing the gender gap in political ambition,” according to the study and could amount to a “quick fix,” trivial media coverage notwithstanding.