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Work-life balance and why women don’t run

Oxford University Press USA has put together a series of articles on a political topic each week for four weeks as the United States discusses the upcoming American presidential election, and Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Our scholars previously tackled the issue of money and politics, the role of political conventions, and the role of media in politics. This week we turn to the role of family in politics.

By Kristin Kanthak


You know the national convention is over when the balloons drop and the presidential candidate’s family joins him on stage amid the cheers of the delegates. In fact, candidates’ families are a central part of their run for the presidency and for their bids for earlier elections prior to the presidency. But we’ve never had a female nominee for the presidency, and the relationship between female politicians and their families is much more complicated.

In the United States, women outnumber men both among college students and among professional and technical workers. Despite this, women lag far behind men in holding political office. Indeed, women held only 17% of the seats in the US Congress after the 2010 election, and a woman has never held the office of President of the United States. Yet political scientists know that when women run for political office, they win at least as often as men, and when they win their elections, they are at least as effective as their male counterparts. The problem, then, is simple: Women don’t run. And part of the reason they don’t run is because women have a different relationship to family than men do.

Researchers have shown that women generally have greater obligations to childcare than men. Furthermore, high-achieving women are far more likely to be married to similarly career-minded spouses than are high-achieving men. High-achieving men, then, are more likely to be married to a woman who can cover the home front, and even provide much-needed “humanity” to their husbands when they run for office. High-achieving women, on the other hand, instead tend to face concerns about how to balance their own ambitions, political or otherwise, with those of their also-ambitious husbands. Consider, for example, the controversy and backlash vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin faced when she attempted to solve the work-life balance problem she faced by allowing her children to travel with her, albeit on the taxpayers’ dime. In fact, this difficulty of navigating the work-life balance prompted former high-ranking state department official Anne Marie Slaughter to write her controversial Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”

Suffragettes at White House. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

The pressure of family obligations, then, invariably weighs more heavily on the average successful woman than on the average successful man as she contemplates a potential run for political office. And of course if women don’t run, they can’t win. Furthermore, this lack of female candidates has serious consequences for politics. Most obviously, few women in Congress translates to lower representation for women and the issues that are most important to them. Women politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Susan Molinari report in their autobiographies that they were forced while serving in Congress to clarify women’s perspectives to their male colleagues, and political scientists know that women legislators are much more likely to champion “family” issues than their male counterparts.

But even beyond these increases in the quality of women’s representation, there are benefits associated with having more women in legislatures. Legislatures with a higher percentage of women enjoy greater legitimacy among the people they represent, both women and men. Women approach negotiation differently from men, being more apt to see a negotiation as an opportunity to give everyone something, rather than as a zero-sum competition, an attitude that may be tremendously beneficial in today’s extremely polarized US Congress. Indeed, in my own book with George A. Krause, The Diversity Paradox, we find that increasing women’s numbers in legislatures could well mitigate the difficulties inherent in legislators working together with people of diverse ideological views.

Of course, the paucity of female candidates is not solely due to difficulties inherent in women’s work-life balance problem. We know that women who might run for office are more likely than men to declare themselves unqualified for politics, even if we control for the actual qualifications of the potential candidates. Furthermore, my colleague Jon Woon and I find that even in the social science lab, far beyond the issues of work-life balance, women remain more reluctant than men to run for election. Yet it is clear that our democracy would be better off if more women entered the political arena, and it is equally clear that familial obligations play a strong role in keeping them out. Trying to find a work-life balance may not be just good for working women and their families, but it could be beneficial for our democracy as well.

Kristin Kanthak is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, co-authored with George A. Krause, draws on leadership PAC contribution data to show that Members of Congress differentially value their colleagues based on the size of minority groups in Congress. You can follow her on Twitter at @kramtrak. Read her previous blog post: “Five things you may not know about leadership PACs.”

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2 Responses to “Work-life balance and why women don’t run”
  1. [...] political scientist Kristin Kanthak noted in a recent post for OUPblog, “In the United States, women outnumber men both among college [...]

  2. [...] President Obama has reached out to single women, and they were critical to his election in 2008. If this group were to gain a voice proportionate to its numbers, then the support for more liberal policies is likely to increase. The revolution cometh. Naomi Cahn and June Carbone are the authors of Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, a Senior Fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and a member of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, for which she and her co-investigators have received outside funding to conduct research on public attitudes towards gay and lesbian parenting. She is the author of Test Tube Families and the co-author of several other books, including a leading family law textbook. June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Professor Carbone writes extensively about the legal issues surrounding marriage, divorce, and family organization, especially within the context of the recent revolutions in biotechnology. She is the author of From Partners to Parents: The Second Revolution in Family Law and co-author of the third edition of Family Law, with Leslie Harris and the late Lee Teitelbaum. Oxford University Press USA has put together a series of articles on a political topic each week for four weeks as the United States discusses the upcoming American presidential election, and Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Our scholars previously tackled the issue of money and politics, the role of political conventions, and  the role of media in politics. This week we turn to the role of family in politics. Read the previous post in this series: “Work-life balance and why women don’t run.” [...]

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