The Blame Game: Are Women Responsible for their Lack of Representation?


I spend a significant amount of time working across the globe to encourage women to run for public office. When they make this brave choice, I also help them run winning campaigns. The work does not stop there. Getting more women into office requires influencing political systems, as well as attitudes toward women leaders, that either make it more or less difficult to get women elected. I was quite excited when I came across the Washington Post article “Everything you think you know about women and politics is wrong” as part of their really cool feature, She the People. Okay Washington Post, you got my attention!

The opening premise is right, we don’t know near enough about women candidates’ motivations, their experiences on the campaign trail or the challenges they face while in office. U.S. Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s new book “Off the Sidelines,” gives us a rare glimpse of what it means to join the boy’s club in the Senate, and let’s just say, it is not pretty.

On the academic side, there are also not near enough studies about the reasons why women chose to run, or not. Why is that? Partly because the sample (the number of women running) is just so incredibly low. Yet, we know that when women run in higher numbers, women win in higher numbers. When women are a larger share of the pool of candidates, they will be a larger share of elected officials. Elections across the world have proven this. In the meantime, we have a lot to try to learn from a small pool of participants in the process.

You know the statistics; the global average of women serving in legislative bodies equals 20 percent. So that means 51 percent of women worldwide are represented by 80 percent of men. This is truly one of the worst forms of global inequality. The consequence is that we are less informed and less able to tackle tough issues, like how young girls get access to education, global trafficking of women, poverty, violence toward women, and a hundred other leading issues that define the quality of life for women and families worldwide.

The situation can be described as such: when women are blocked from the corridors of power they are on an unequal playing field and therefore not in a position to truly shift these sobering statistics.

Therefore, when I come across more research that sheds light on women candidates, I am elated. My hopes were quickly dashed with a recent analysis on this topic. A new study by Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, misses the boat, “It’s the Family, Stupid? Not Quite..How Traditional Gender Roles Do Not Affect Women’s Political Ambition.” 

Read the research and you be the judge. To someone like me who is in the field trying to create a more enabling environment conducive to getting more women elected, a study arguing that because women are successful in the corporate world, family caregiving is not a factor in women’s choice to enter politics. This is an oversimplification and not inline with reality. There is more to the study than this, yet the ultimate conclusion is that women are to blame because they lack the ambition to step up to the plate.

As someone who spends her days listening to women talk about the dual burden of work and family, hearing women candidates struggle with the lack of support from their party or their partner, this conclusion rings hallow. It is an interesting set of data, but one that contributes to the “blame the victim” approach that will get us no further in decreasing the gender gap in representation.

Women right now are being told to lean in, lean back, quit apologizing, call out “mansplaining” and ban bossy. These are just a few examples of push back on a culture that defines and thus limits the perception of women´s potential vis-à-vis their treatment in a male dominated society. The message is, ladies, it is your problem to solve, and yours alone, if you only you would do more to challenge cultural misogyny. In part, I agree, women have to push back. But, the idea that an ambition gap in running for office is the major obstacle without considering the larger structural and attitudinal barriers specific to gender roles, economics and political participation is naive at best.

Just the other day I was talking with a colleague whose friend in Sweden was running for office. She stepped out of the race, deciding to take a less visible role in the party rather than be a candidate. Principally this decision was based on fear. She was increasingly fearing for herself and her family due to the attention she was garnering and the implications to her family and her safety. So here is an extremely progressive country when it comes to women’s rights with the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the western world, yet where high profile women are being threatened with rape and violence via twitter bullying. If the women of Sweden aren’t empowered and supported, we have a larger issue than ambition to overcome in order to support women candidates in other places.

The bottom line, we don’t need an academic study that blames women for their lack of ambition. Instead, we need political parties that are willing to take into consideration the realities of women candidates. We need financial structures that give women access to resources (thank you Emily´s List for the model!). We need a media environment that focuses less on what women candidates are wearing and more on what they are saying. And yes, we need to continue to question the rigid gender roles around caregiving and family obligations that require women who do run and win to be Superwomen, or have the funds to hire a good nanny.


Do you have the ambition to run for office? Then turn your attention to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation´s new guide on “Keys to elected office, the essential guide for women” or a newly launched campaign VoteRunLead, based on making it as simple as possible to reach across the aisle and encourage women to get involved with tools that can help them succeed.

My advice is that the Women and Politics Institute at American University spend even more time observing women candidates and talking to political institutions that work with women running for office rather than contributing to the non conventional frame, which turns out is really quite conventional, that blames women.