The hardest part of being a woman in Congress? Getting there.

September 21, 2018

For nearly two years, the news of women’s political candidacies has dominated election coverage. From the record number of women running and winning nominations across levels of office to the ways in which women are disrupting the traditional rules of political engagement, women candidates have been viewed already as major winners of election 2018. But winning isn’t easy.  And even this year, record levels of success for women candidates will not mean gender parity in politics; in the best-case scenarios, women would still hold less than 25% of congressional seats and gubernatorial offices nationwide.

In our new book, A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perceptions on Why Their Presence Matters, my co-authors (Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan Carroll) and I asked 83 congresswomen about the challenges of being women in Congress. At least one-quarter of them told us that the obstacles to entry into Congress are actually more significant than any gender bias they confront once they are inside. As Representative Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) said, “Being here in Congress is not as hard as it was to get here.

The congresswomen we interviewed pointed to the financial costs of campaigning as particularly burdensome to women. And while research has shown that women candidates are capable of matching their male counterparts in fundraising totals, scholars have also identified gender and racial disparities in the work required to achieve the same result. Part of that work includes building a support infrastructure and financial network that was not ready-made for them. Representative Kathleen Rice (D-NY) explained the shared experience among women this way: “We know the struggle of actually trying to put together a winning campaign—to put together a financial infrastructure and a political infrastructure that is not already premade for us like it is for men.”

But the costs of campaigning are not only financial. Congresswomen we interviewed also described gender differences in how they were treated and evaluated as candidates for congressional office. Many pointed to higher standards to which women candidates are held, yielding greater scrutiny of women’s private lives and professional credentials. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) observed that “we vote for a lot of male candidates that are not perfect,” despite the expectation of perfection in women who run for office. Tessa Ditonto, Allison Hamilton, and David Redlawsk offer some support for Stabenow’s claim in their research, finding that voters seek greater competence-related information for women candidates than they do for men. Kathryn Pearson and Erin McGhee have also found that women candidates come to campaigns with more qualifications than their male counterparts, an advantage that appears to combat gender-based doubts at the ballot box, according to Sarah Fulton’s research.

This differential standard for women is not only recognized as a hurdle to office among officeholders themselves; a new Pew Research Center survey finds that it is the reason most cited by Americans for women’s political underrepresentation. In the survey, 86% of respondents say that women needing to do more to prove themselves than men is either a major or minor reason why there are fewer women than men in high political offices.

The second-most cited reason for women’s underrepresentation in the Pew survey is that women get less support from party leaders. Research from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) found mixed results on this measure in a 2008 study, finding minimal gender disparities in party encouragement from party leaders received by sitting state legislators. However, the study did find that women of color state legislators reported receiving less party support, and more discouragement from party leaders, in their bids for office. Other research illuminates challenges for women navigating party support and selection among those who never made it to office – or even candidacy, which include party leader biases in perceptions about women (and women of color) candidates’ electoral viability as well as male-dominated networks that place women at the back of line for the next electoral opportunity. As House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told us about her first bid for Congress in 1987, “[The guys] would say things like, ‘It’s not your turn.” She responded, “How can it be my turn? You established this line a long time ago. We’ve been waiting over 200 years. It is our turn.”

In 2018, fewer women appear to be waiting their turn to run or win political office. At the congressional level, women like Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have challenged the standard operating procedure in party primaries by successfully challenging long-time male incumbents. But their wins – and the broader successes of women candidates this year, do not mean that the campaign terrain for women is without persistent obstacles to overcome.

Pew’s findings shed additional light on the hurdles that remain for women seeking political leadership roles. While majorities of respondents perceived few gender differences on issue expertise in highly salient areas like the economy and immigration, 35% of those surveyed still reported a male advantage on dealing with national security and defense. And while women are perceived as significantly more compassionate and empathetic than their male counterparts, those traits are among the least-prioritized for political leadership and still more than half of respondents believe that showing emotions “mostly hurts” a woman’s chances of getting elected to office.

Candidates in 2018 are chipping away at dated and constrained expectations of and lingering biases against women who run for political office. The women who’ve come before them also deserve credit for disrupting our political institutions in ways that have made room for groups and individuals that have been historically marginalized and/or excluded from power. All of this contributes to the progress we will see in women’s political representation, even if parity won’t be achieved this year.

Our book describes how that representation matters in Congress, from the ways in which women challenge institutional norms to how their distinct perspectives and priorities alter agendas and debates. The congresswomen we interviewed make a strong case for increasing the number of women in their ranks and point to a good place to start: making it easier for women to get there.