Getting More Women to Run for Office

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 10:54 AM EDT

A new paper uses a clever design to figure out if women are more willing to compete in teams than as individuals. The answer, in a laboratory test setting, is a resounding yes:

  • Even though men and women performed equally well on the task, 81% of men chose to compete as individuals compared with 28% of women.
  • When participants competed in teams, the gender competition gap shrank by 31 percentage points to 22%, with 67% of men choosing to enter the competition compared with 45% of women.

One of the clever parts of the study design was a series of different competitions that tried to untease the cause of different gender preferences. The result, say the authors, is that it really is a true difference in competitive preference, not just an artifact of risk aversion, feedback aversion, or confidence. Does this make a difference in the real world? Sure it does:

Countries that have party-list proportional representation, in which voters select a slate of candidates put forth by a party, generally have more than twice the female representation rate in their legislatures than countries that have single-member districts. Two countries that elect some members under each system, Germany and New Zealand, illustrate the differences most clearly. In the 1994 German election, 13% of the representatives elected from single-member districts were women, while 39% of the representatives elected from party-list districts were women. In New Zealand in 1996, the corresponding numbers were 15% and 45% for the single-member and party-list districts, respectively. These differences occur primarily because women are more likely to be candidates under proportional representation.

As I recall, we have much the same phenomenon in the United States. Once they decide to run, women generally do as well as men in political campaigns. The problem is that not very many are willing to run.

Our political system isn't likely to change to improve this situation, but this research does suggest there might be slate-oriented ways to get more women to run. Here's an example from my neck of the woods. In my hometown of Irvine, for historical reasons, there are basically two slates of candidates that run as a group for city council every couple of years. (I think of them as gangs, but I guess "slate" is a better word.) This system, accidental though it is, seems to attract a fair number of female candidates. People actually vote for councilmembers individually, and usually we end up with some winners from one slate and some from another. Nonetheless, merely running as part of a team seems to encourage more female participation.

That's just my impression, of course, and it might be wrong. But it might be worth another study to see if slate-like behavior, whether formal or informal, increases the number of women who run for political office in the United States.

Via Tyler Cowen.

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