Building on Women’s Wins in 2017

How to Increase the Number of Women Running for Office

Recruiting women of color and young women, as well as discussing discrimination, could increase the number of women running for office in 2018.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing,
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "Oversight of the United States Department of Homeland Security," January 2018. (Getty/Bill Clark)

Standing of the shoulders of trailblazers like Shirley Chisholm, women of color such as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) saw tremendous success in 2016. Building on their breakthroughs, elections in 2017 resulted in a number of firsts for candidates who are women and women of color. These successes are important for American democracy because the presence of women in office fundamentally changes politics and policymaking: Research shows that female officeholders are more likely to focus on issues concerning gender equity; promote participation and inclusion in the policymaking process; and increase women’s interest and participation in politics.

Given the importance of having women in office, now is a critical moment to reflect on lessons learned from women’s electoral success in 2017 and outline ways to build on these wins in the coming years. While there are many reforms that would increase the number of women in office, this column focuses on the immediate future—specifically, how to increase women’s representation in 2018.

Research has documented that, when women run, women win at similar rates to men. Thus, in order to improve women’s representation in office, increasing the number of women candidates is key. The results of 2017 prove that this is a winning strategy: In Virginia and New Jersey, record numbers of women ran for a variety of offices statewide, leading to a record number of female representatives in Virginia. And this could just be the tip of the iceberg—advocacy groups focused on promoting female candidates have seen a tremendous surge nationwide in women interested in running for office since the 2016 election. Given the number of women interested in running for office, women could be poised to make substantial gains in 2018. Here are three key ways to build momentum:

1. Recruit women of color for office

Parties and political elites such as officeholders and donors should make an effort to broaden their networks and recruit women—especially women of color—to become involved in politics. Despite much research regarding women’s ambition gap with men, the author’s research shows that, among potential candidates, women of color are equally as ambitious as men of color—and substantially more politically ambitious than white women.* Despite this ambition, women of color are massively underrepresented and are often shut out of public office by damaging stereotypes.

Two factors that relate to women’s underrepresentation are a lack of recruitment by party and political elites as well as a lack of access to networks that include officeholders. Changing these factors—by actively recruiting women of color and focusing on candidates outside of traditional networks—would increase the likelihood that women of color are politically ambitious. In fact, research shows that, assuming other factors remain constant, merely having political acquaintances increases the likelihood by 12 percent that women of color who are potential candidates are politically ambitious. In addition, recruiting women of color to participate in politics increases the likelihood that potential female candidates of color are politically ambitious by 10 percent.*

2. Talk about discrimination

During the 2016 campaign and throughout 2017, women have repeatedly been confronted by stories of discrimination and harassment—and this important conversation should be continued. Research shows that, among potential candidates, women who report experiences with discrimination are significantly more likely to be politically ambitious.* In fact, for many groups of women, experiencing discrimination is a primary motivator in developing political ambition. Among potential political candidates, when other factors remain constant, experiencing discrimination increases the likelihood that women of color are politically ambitious by 11 percent, for white women by 8 percent, for noncollege educated women by 7 percent, and for college-educated women by 9 percent. Continuing to shine a light on the discrimination women face—and helping women recognize their own experiences with discrimination—could serve to motivate more women to run for office.

3. Focus on young women

Encouraging young women to run could pay dividends. While women across the age spectrum have political aspirations, research demonstrates that, among potential candidates, young women are substantially more ambitious than older women. In fact, age is a tremendously influential factor in political ambition for both women and men.* Providing young women with opportunities to act on these ambitions is a key strategy for increasing the number of women running for office in 2018. Doing would also help to build the pipeline for future elections.

These are by no means the only changes that would increase women’s representation. Previous Center for American Progress research has documented how campaign finance reform; providing sufficient party and PAC funds for women’s campaigns; changes in the electoral structure; and reducing the power of incumbency would all improve women’s representation in office. Looking into the future, providing girls and young women with the kinds of experiences that encourage political ambition—involvement in athletics, for example*—would help to build a pipeline for future candidates. But in the near term, taking these concrete steps—recruiting women of color, focusing on young women, and discussing discrimination—would help increase the number of women interested in running for office in 2018 and beyond.

Katherine Gallagher Robbins is the director of family policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. 

*Author’s note: This column summarizes findings from the author’s 2015 dissertation, “Governing Bodies: How the Organization of Social Groups Shapes Political Ambition.” This research examines what factors affect the likelihood that a potential candidate is politically ambitious. In line with previous research in this field, this research defines a potential candidate as someone who has participated in at least one of seven different kinds of activism and classifies individuals as politically ambitious if they were motivated to participate by the desire to obtain a government job or run for office.

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Katherine Gallagher Robbins

Senior Director of Poverty Policy