Thursday, August 14, 2014

Election Aversion

In yet another article featuring the theme “Women are different”, New York Times author Derek Willis covered an experimental research study which found that women are less likely to volunteer themselves as an election candidate, asking “Does the Prospect of Running for Office Discourage Women?” After asking the same question in the words of one of the researchers, he claims that the results of the study answer the question affirmatively, yes.

Willis explicitly states that the researchers, Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon, do not conclude that so called election aversion is the sole reason for the under-representation of women in elected office and or an innate characteristic of women. However, the article explores how with much more emphasis than why women are different than men in regards to political ambition. In the article, there is ample support for the conclusion that women are different than men, not that our society socializes men and women differently.

Perhaps the author is led to portray the discussion this way by the manner in which the researchers discuss the results of their study themselves. Willis quotes Kristin Kanthak several times throughout his article making statements that imply that women are inherently different than men, regardless of whether or not that is her intention, including the following:

“‘What if there is something about women that makes them not want to run for office that doesn’t have anything to do with external factors?’ Ms. Kanthak said in an interview. ‘What if we could completely level the playing field — would women be as likely to run as men?’”

This rhetorical question of whether or not women would be as likely to run as men (answered by the conclusions of her study) given a level playing field assumes that if men no longer had advantages, they would still be in power because they would put themselves there. If it doesn’t have to do with inequality or external factors, then women aren’t pursuing power because something is different about women.

“‘If women aren’t willing to ask for raises, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re not willing to ask for votes’”

The use of the word willing when comparing asking for votes to asking for a raise, conjures up the very essence of American ideals such as free will, personal responsibility and rugged individualism. Women could make different choices, but they simply don’t.

“‘In most jobs, you have to show that you can do the job you were hired to do,’ Ms. Kanthak said. ‘The skills to win an election are really different than the skills it takes to govern.’”

Thus, women may be capable of leading, but they do not have the skills to compete in the bid for elected office.

Though Ms. Kanthak and her research partner Jonathan Woon write in no uncertain terms, “To be clear, we claim neither that such a behavioral difference is the exclusive cause of under-representation nor that it is in any way innate or intrinsic,” in their study, her statements when read without discussion of the underlying causes do imply that the reason women don’t run for office is they are, very simply put, different.

Though I think the New York Times article and her statements in it lead readers to assume that election aversion is an innate gender difference, I also believe that the researchers sincerely do not intend the results of their study to be interpreted that way. When examining the research article itself, the disclaimer stating the researchers “claim neither that such a behavioral difference is the exclusive cause of under-representation nor that it is in any way innate or intrinsic” is cited with an experimental study which also examines gender differences in competitive attitudes, but finds that there are no innate differences.

In the study cited by Kanthak and Woon, “Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society”, researchers Uri Gneezy, Kenneth L. Leonard, and John A. List examined gender differences in willingness to engage in competition by conducting controlled experiments in two societies which mirror each other’s gender social constructs. In the matrilineal society, where inheritance and clan membership follow the female lineage through the youngest daughter, women engaged much more readily in competition than the men of their own society and even at a higher rate than the men from the patriarchal society. Their study concludes that “In the very least, these findings represent existence results: it is not universally true that the average female in every society avoids competition more often than the average male in that society because we have discovered at least one setting in which this is not true.” They go on to discuss the roles of nature and nurture in developing competitiveness, concluding that willingness to engage in competition is sensitive to social gender role construction and is not the result of innate gender differences.

It is my assumption that if Kanthak and Woon were aware of this study and regarded it highly enough to cite it as the reference for their disclaimer, that they would probably suggest a similar explanation for the gendered differences found in their own study. So, let’s answer the question posed by the title of the New York Times article differently than if we just read the article. Does the prospect of running for office discourage women? No, it doesn’t. We do.

Why is it important to distinguish where the discouraging pressure is coming from? Why am I choosing this battle? If something different about women discourages them from running for office, if we keep talking about the choices that women make, then there is nothing we can do but wait for women to be different and make different choices. This is reflected in Kanthak and Woon’s pessimistic closing statement regarding potential reforms in electoral institutions which they envision could increase the diversity of representation; they are difficult and “unlikely to materialize”. As Gneezy, Leonard and List point out, focusing on external forces leads to a much more pro-active solution; “If the difference is based on nurture, or an interaction between nature and nurture, on the other hand, the public policy might be targeting the socialization and education at early ages as well as later in life to eliminate this asymmetric treatment of men and women with respect to competitiveness.”

Ultimately, if we focus on the underlying causes then there is something we can do. Furthermore, democracy gave us the tools to change the institutions shaping the behavior of our future young leaders of all genders. So, yes, women are different. But, there is still something we can do to increase representativeness of our electoral institutions. We don’t have to wait for change to materialize on its own. The bottom line is that we have to stop saying that the reason women have yet to achieve equal power and privilege in the United States is that they are different without talking about why. It makes it too easy to do nothing about it.
-Allysha Roth