Above the glass ceiling: Women in leadership
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
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May 23, 2019
Margaret Brennan, Jennifer Lawless, Anita McBride, Barbara Perry (moderator)
By Vanessa Revilla
Despite apparent strides in women taking on political leadership role, a panel of professionals at the Presidential Ideas Festival at the University of Virginia spoke on the continued lack of female political representation and the societal pressures that account for it.
Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at UVA’s Miller Center and the moderator for the event, opened the conversation by acknowledging that while women have historically taken on soft-power—influential roles such as first lady—there is a pressing need for women in formal office-holding positions.
The lack of women in politics is not simply a lack of voter support. The root issue is that women do not run for political office at nearly the same rate as men. Jennifer Lawless, a commonwealth professor of politics at UVA, discussed her research on this topic, where she found that “women were about a third less likely as men to ever consider running for office. And among those [women] who had considered it, they were a third less likely [than men] to actually do it.”
Pinpointing the reason behind this discrepancy is no simple feat. The panelists agreed that one major factor is the implicit social message that women are underqualified for the role.
Margaret Brennan, UVA alumna and the moderator for CBS News’ Face the Nation, recalled a professional strategist telling her that a woman is not going to win the presidential election because “women don’t look the part.” While small comments like this may seem insignificant, their implications have resulted in generations of women internalizing the message that they are unfit for political office.
“There’s something to the picking at the tone of voice,” Brennan said. “There’s something to the discussing what she was wearing.… We still expect our female leaders to look perfectly put together. Men just have it easier. They don’t have to go to hair and makeup for an hour before they come out and talk. These perceptions of power, there’s something to them that’s kind of hard to quantify, but they’re undeniably part of people’s calculus.”
Following the 2018 congressional elections, however, the United States has seen an unprecedented number of women run for, win, and currently serve in congressional office. Although this seems like incredible progress, Lawless argued that the great change portrayed in the media is inaccurate.
“It’s important to also keep in mind that those raw numbers sometimes obscure the overall percentages,” she said. “So although we had several hundred women seek the nomination for the House and Senate, we had a record number of male candidates emerge as well because there was this general sense that the Republicans were vulnerable.… Men and women alike saw those opportunities.” Ultimately, we “only saw a couple of percentage point increase in the number of women serving.”
While the statistical progress is not as drastic as it appears, Lawless pointed out that the most optimistic sign is that women now seem to view themselves as qualified, no matter their backgrounds.
“The women who have decided to run are not all the Hillary Clintons of the world,” she explained. “They don’t all have every single political experience and credential. [This] suggests that women are throwing their hats into the ring because they think they are as qualified as similar men, who also have not done every single thing out there.”
The panelists also addressed the lack of women in the Republican Party. “In 2018, Republicans saw a net loss in the number of women serving,” Lawless said. “And among the women serving in Congress right now, more than 80 percent are democrats.”
Anita McBride, former chief of staff for First Lady Laura Bush, credited this discrepancy to “terrible recruitment” by the Republican party. She added that, “to be fair, there has definitely been a bias. I know myself as a Republican conservative woman, sometimes people think you have three heads. But I am not willing to throw the towel in on the party.”
Regardless of the reasoning, Lawless sees a need for Republican women in office specifically: “If we’re thinking about representation broadly, if we’re thinking about the idea that voters should be able to cast ballots for women regardless of their party, we have a lot of work to do.”
Lawless spoke on her findings from the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Surprisingly, she said, women running for the House experienced “no gender differences in media coverage, in either volume or substance.” In fact, “96 percent of male candidates and 95 percent of female candidates running for Congress received no mention of what they looked like.”
It is important to remember, though, that for high-profile elections, such as the presidential election, the media continues to cover female and male candidates differently. Furthermore, the vast difference in the number of men and women who decide to run means that men continue to dominate almost every level of political office.
Key quotes from this session
“I used to not bring these things up because I didn’t want to discourage people. And now when I talk to women, whatever field they’re in, I say, ‘Look, think about what’s going to happen to you when you encounter a moment like that because you’re going to encounter a moment like that.’ No one told me to think of that… Have that little cheat sheet in the back of your mind that says when I’m in this position or this is said to me, this is how I’m going to respond.” —Margaret Brennan
"I think we have the situation where not only are women more likely than men to doubt their qualifications to succeed in a very male-dominated environment, but they’re far more likely than men to rely on those self-doubts. And again, this is why recruitment is so important because it can work to mitigate some of those self-doubts.” —Jennifer Lawless