Young women put off career in politics by sexism and work-life balance issues

If these role models talk truthfully about the challenges they face, younger women might conclude that politics is not for them.
- Dr Florian Foos

A programme that tried to encourage more women into politics failed to do so, probably because young women were put off by the barriers female politicians face on an everyday basis, including sexism and work-life balance issues, according to new study from researchers at LSE and the University of Zurich.

Florian Foos, Assistant Professor of Political Behaviour in LSE’s Department of Government, and Fabrizio Gilardi, Professor of Policy Analysis at the University of Zurich, collaborated with a non-partisan NGO in Switzerland and a group of students to test the idea that successful female role models help encourage more women into politics. A group of 959 students, 612 female and 337 male, were recruited, reflecting the gender composition of the university’s student body. First, they took part in an online survey which included questions on gender attitudes and political careers embedded in a longer survey on career and study issues. The survey also measured demographic, as well as social and political background attributes. The results showed that female students reported lower political interest than male students; they were able to correctly identify fewer politicians, no matter if politicians were male or female; and they also reported lower political ambition than male students. Would the programme be able to close the gender gap in political ambition?

To identify the effects of exposure to female role models on political ambition, the researchers randomly assigned invitation emails to a mentoring event, “Women and Career Beyond the Glass Ceiling,” among all women. Four female politicians, ranging in age from 37 to 51, were recruited to conduct career workshops with female university students in Zurich. The politicians were not given specific instructions regarding the themes to be covered in the workshops, but were asked to convey their own personal career experience.

Two weeks after the workshop all students, both male and female, were asked to take part in another online survey designed to capture interest in a political career. There was also an offer of political mentoring programme for all women, no matter whether they received the initial workshop invitation or not. The results showed that the event had done nothing to increase women’s political ambition, or their likelihood of applying to the follow-up mentoring programme.

The research paper, Does Exposure to Gender Role Models Increase Women’s Political Ambition? A Field Experiment with Politicians published in Journal of Experimental Political Science, explains: “Qualitative evidence from the workshops shows that politicians gave a candid assessment of the challenges women can expect to face when running for office. For instance, one politician emphasised that when she first took office, she was the only woman in the legislature who had small children and lived far from the capital. The same politician also presented herself as someone “with above-average energy resources.” Moreover, another politician put considerable emphasis on the challenges women face when combining a demanding professional career with family life. This was a common thread in all workshops.”

“Qualitative evidence collected during the workshops is consistent with findings from psychology and economics, showing that role models can fail to inspire if their achievements seem unattainable. If even women who are objectively successful face high barriers, then what would it be like for women who believe that they might not have the same degree of motivation and skills?”

The researchers conclude: “One hypothesis arising from this study is that role models can fail to motivate women to pursue a political career if they discuss their experience bluntly instead of following a motivational script – a plausible situation in real-world contexts that mentoring programmes need to consider.”

Florian Foos adds: “The real underlying issue, of course, is structural. Women politicians still face higher barriers and expectations than men do. The disheartening implication is that if these role models talk truthfully about the challenges they face, younger women might conclude that politics is not for them. This points to the limitations of mentoring programmes and behavioural interventions that cannot address underlying gender inequalities, and frankly, the sexism, that women politicians have to deal with on an everyday basis”.