steps-to-capitol2State legislators are the largest single source of women in Congress and governorships (more than half), but over the last few years the percentage of women in these top offices has plateaued. Following the 2012 election, their presence in Congress rose from just 17 to 18 percent, and after reaching a high of nine in 1997, the number of female governors has fallen to five. This study examines the motivators and obstacles female candidates and elected officials consider when deciding whether or not to run for higher office.

Key Findings

Despite many (77 percent) of the women surveyed having discussed a run for higher office with family and friends, only 1 in 5 women state legislators have seriously considered running for higher office. Our research suggests the dearth of women in higher office is not due to a lack of interest, but rather to insufficient mentoring, discrimination in recruitment, higher hurdles, and the greater isolation women face as candidates and elected officials.

The political pipeline is complex and ever-changing for women who are poised to seek higher office. The construction of long-term political careers remains highly gendered and features significant gaps and barriers for women. The following five content areas emerged as the most significant.

Reason to Run for First Office
Our research affirms the conventional wisdom that men run for office to “be someone,” whereas women run to “do something.” Expressing the majority opinion, one female candidate noted, “[one can] create meaningful change in people’s everyday lives through holding political office.”

Considerations for Higher Office
Many women are deterred by the increasingly acrimonious political climate in DC. While some women are motivated to change the way the federal government works, the Achieving Parity Study went on to reveal extensive nuance to their political decision-making.

Mentorship and Networking
The most common mentor identified for women in our study is an elected official—state legislators more often described a peer or colleague taking that role, citing limited access to mentors at a higher level of office. Expanded mentorship across levels is essential to building the relationships women need to advance through the political ranks.

Money Barrier
Female state legislators consider money the greatest barrier to running for higher office, a pervasive and often misunderstood challenge. Focus group participants noted that despite initial trepidation, fundraising is a learned skill that can be mastered with practice and training.

Gender Bias and Access to Political Resources
Despite gains in political representation at the highest levels of American politics, our study participants perceive government to be more gender-biased than the private sector. Along with research demonstrating media biases, our findings suggest that informal processes within the parties and with donors are limiting women’s political rise.

Summary and Strategies for Change

State legislatures continue to be a critical source of candidates for Congress and governorships. However, to feed the pipeline more women must be encouraged to run and given opportunities to work with leaders at higher levels.

Our study participants a number of strategies for change within the field; to read them download the executive summary!

Download The Report

Executive Summary »
The full report will be available from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research soon.

Research conducted and analyzed by:
Institute for Women’s Policy Research
Denise Baer, PhD
Lake Research Partners
Chesapeake Beach Consulting
Shauna Shames, PhD Candidate

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