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Women Still Absent From Politics, But Reasons Remain Murky

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Women Still Absent From Politics, But Reasons Remain Murky

Politics

Women Still Absent From Politics, But Reasons Remain Murky

Women Still Absent From Politics, But Reasons Remain Murky

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/360957590/360957591" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Arun Rath talks to historian Nancy Cohen about why women are under-represented in elected office, and why many of the biases we expect don't actually exist.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Take one look at Congress, and it's obvious women are underrepresented. The reasons why - not so obvious, according to Nancy Cohen, who breaks down the research in the piece for the magazine Pacific Standard. Nancy, welcome to the program.

NANCY COHEN: Hi. Great to be here.

RATH: So there's a lot of conventional wisdom about why there aren't more women in politics. And you looked at five studies that took on those ideas. I want to rattle through the first three kind of lightning round version. I'll set them up, and you knock them down. First one - voter bias. Sexist attitudes mean that voters want to vote for men.

COHEN: Not true. We don't have any evidence that there's a double standard. The double standard is dead, as far as politics is concerned. Voters, in aggregate, support women candidates at the same level that they support men candidates. Women win as often as men do in similar-situated elections. It's not to say that everyday sexism in the media doesn't exist or that candidates aren't going to try to attack women candidates with sexist ads. But voters don't buy it, and voters don't let it influence their votes.

RATH: So you mentioned the media. That brings us to number two, which is the media reinforce gender stereotypes, and that's a big part of the problem.

COHEN: It's really easy to pick out lots of anecdotes about media sexism. Those are certainly true. But if you compare the way the media treats men and treats women, there's no evidence that they're really treated differently. And in fact, voters do look at candidates with their own stereotypes, but those stereotypes they apply are partisan stereotypes.

RATH: It's looking like obviously there's momentum building around another Hillary Clinton run for president. When Hillary last ran for president, she said that there really was a double standard. But do you think that things have changed dramatically since then?

COHEN: I think Hillary was right and also that things have changed. But the fact that the media treated her in very sexist ways, and there were these really awful kind of attacks on her - you know, the nutcracker and the cackle and all that nonsense - voters see through that. And I think maybe the media will be thinking a little bit more carefully about how they portray women candidates, now that women are so active on social media in calling out retrograde nonsense.

RATH: OK. So what about family? Women are too busy raising families to run for office.

COHEN: Not true. Women have been managing the double shift for decades now. And particularly, younger women expect that this is the fate that they face in American society. So being a mother doesn't stop women from running for office.

RATH: OK. Well, let's dig into the last two points. The first one is that women aren't running for office because they don't want to. There's a lack of political ambition, in general, among women, for whatever reason.

COHEN: The evidence is as women and particularly teenage girls start seeing more women in office, they get a jolt of political ambition. So the solution is for more women to run so that more teenage girls have the desire to run when they're adults.

RATH: And what about the final argument that you take on that the way that this political system is structured is kind of rigged against women?

COHEN: The United States has a winner-take-all system. What that means is that incumbents are very powerful. So looking at U.S. history as a whole, 11,813 men have served in Congress, and 294 for women have served in Congress. So there are a lot of people that argue that if we tinker with the way we hold elections, then we might be able to get more women in office.

RATH: Nancy Cohen is a writer and historian. Nancy, thanks very much.

COHEN: Thank you.

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