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The Ambition Gap

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- As Hillary Clinton cracks her head against what she likes to call "the highest and hardest glass ceiling," there's no doubt that she craves the presidency as much as any man.

But a new report from the Brookings Institution suggests an unexpected reason for the relative paucity of women elsewhere in political office and the dearth of credible female presidential candidates: an ambition gap.

"Somewhat surprisingly," write political scientists Jennifer Lawless of Brown University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount, women's underrepresentation "is not because of discrimination against women candidates. In fact, women perform as well as men when they do run for office. In terms of fundraising and vote totals, the consensus among researchers is the complete absence of overt gender bias."

Rather, the "fundamental reason for women's underrepresentation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don't."

Surveying thousands of business leaders, educators and political activists, Lawless and Fox found "clear and compelling evidence that women, even in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment, are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elected office." These results held true regardless of age, partisan affiliation, income and profession.

Equally unsettling, they note, this ambition gap is not shrinking. The number of women seeking political office grew steadily during the 1980s, and surged in the early 1990s -- remember the Year of the Woman? -- but has since leveled off. Today, women account for fewer than one out of four elected statewide officials, one in six members of Congress, and -- perhaps most relevant considering the traditional road to the presidency -- eight of 50 governors.

Why this reluctance to take the political plunge? "Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign," Lawless and Fox write. "They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are 'qualified' to run for office."

Oh boy -- oh girl? -- does that ring true.

Far fewer of the women in the survey were married or had children, and those who did had their hands full: 60 percent of the women, compared to 4 percent of the men, said they were responsible for the majority of child care. Chugging down the Mommy Track leaves little time for pursuing a third, often all-consuming career.

The ambition gap also reflected an underlying, and pronounced, cockiness gap. One-third of men, but just one in five women, rated themselves "very qualified" to hold political office; twice as many women (12 percent) as men (6 percent) considered themselves "not at all qualified." Men were more likely to try for federal office, women for the local school board. Nearly half the women, but fewer than one in three men, said they did not "have thick enough skin" to run.

Those responses resonated with my own experiences. Becoming a parent tempered my career ambitions in ways I never anticipated. There are jobs I once wanted -- jobs I'd be good at, actually -- that I would now not pursue.

If the gender tables were turned, would Michelle Obama leave two young daughters at home to run for president? How would voters respond if she did? Would her husband put his career on hold to manage the family?

When the governor of Alaska gave birth the other day to her fifth child, my initial, not-especially-enlightened thought was: How in the world will she manage that? I have just two kids to juggle and no state to run, and I'm dropping balls left and right.

The cockiness gap, too, has parallels in the opinion-writing business. The undeniable underrepresentation of women on op-ed pages has always struck me as more a function of limited supply (women willing to speak out) than inadequate demand (male chauvinist editors). It is intimidating to put your opinions out there, especially in an age of online, highly personal vitriol. It takes a certain unbecoming arrogance to believe you have something valuable to say -- even one time, no less week after week.

Sometimes the hardest glass ceilings are the ones women impose, whether knowingly or subconsciously, on ourselves.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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