The 117th Congress (that would be the current one, for those of you who've lost count) has been lauded as having the highest percentage of women in history. This would be a cause for celebration, if that historical high weren't 27%.

Jennifer Lawless, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, has spent much of her career studying the subject of women in politics. She was kind enough to spend some time this week discussing the current gender imbalance in Congress, the causes behind it, and what we can do to fix it.

You can listen to the recording via the player below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else your bad self gets your podcasts.


Since Jeannette Raskin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, four years before she'd be granted the right to vote for herself in an election, the number of women in Congress rose slowly in the first part of the 20th Century, before seeing a rapid increase in the House in 1989 that's sustained to this day. Despite this, the percentage of women to men in both chambers of Congress remains disproportionately lower than the population at large.

In Lawless's research, she found a gap in political ambition among men and women, with 57% of men surveyed having thought about running for office, as opposed to 37% of women. This gap persisted over the course of 10 years, barely budging between 2001 and 2012.

She also found women were just as likely to be exposed to political conversation and content at home, but were far less likely to be encouraged to run for office by parents, teachers, or peers. This pattern extends into adulthood, with a 10% gap in the number of men recruited to run for office by political operatives as opposed to women.

The differences in why women run for office differ from men as well. Whereas women tend to look at whether or not they're qualified for the job, men tend to run on the principle of "I couldn't do it any worse". (As a male, I can report this philosophy bleeds into many other aspects of life).

The solution: actively recruit more women. While less likely to volunteer to run for office, Lawless has found they respond just as positively when asked to run. They're also just as likely - if not more likely - than men to win election and reelection, dispelling myths around "electability" that tend to plague female candidates.

The main issue with recruiting for diversity - whether gender, racial, or otherwise - is that it's a discipline in and of itself. It requires parties go outside the standard networks and methods they use to recruit candidates, which requires extra effort.

This being said, women aren't difficult to find. In addition to comprising half of the total population, they also make up a disproportionate share of leadership in education and child-related organizations. 

Why is this important? Fairness aside, there's evidence that women behave differently in Congress, being more likely to collaborate with other legislators, promote bipartisan solutions, and bring more money to their districts. In an era where voters bemoan partisan gridlock, this might be the most electable trait of all.

Additional Resources