Entering the Arena? Gender and the Decision to Run for Office


  • For comments on previous versions of this article, we thank David Brady, Barbara Burrell, Kathy Dolan, Mo Fiorina, Amy Gangl, Kent Jennings, Jane Mansbridge, Terry Moe, Kira Sanbonmatsu, Walt Stone, and Sean Theriault. We are grateful to the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, the Center for American Women and Politics, the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, California State University, Fullerton, Union College, and Stanford University for providing the funding to carry out the survey on which our results are based.

Richard L. Fox is Associate Professor of Political Science, Union College, Schenectady, NY 12308 (foxr@union.edu). Jennifer L. Lawless is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Prospect House, Box 1844, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912 (jennifer_lawless@brown.edu).


A critical void in the research on women's underrepresentation in elective office is an analysis of the initial decision to run for office. Based on data from our Citizen Political Ambition Study, the first large-scale national survey of potential candidates, we examine the process by which women and men emerge as candidates for public office. We find that women who share the same personal characteristics and professional credentials as men express significantly lower levels of political ambition to hold elective office. Two factors explain this gender gap: first, women are far less likely than men to be encouraged to run for office; second, women are significantly less likely than men to view themselves as qualified to run. Our findings call into question the leading theoretical explanations for women's numeric underrepresentation and indicate that, because of vestiges of traditional sex-role socialization, prospects for gender parity in U.S. political institutions are less promising than conventional explanations suggest.