Will there be another Madam Speaker? Trends in political ambition among women at Denison

By Madeleine Murphy

[Photo from the Women in Leadership Brunch, Fall 2021]

We are living in the heyday of women in politics. We have a female Vice President, a female Speaker, and a record number of women in this 117th congress (27%). This is not a small accomplishment. It has been 100 years since women got the vote and only in the last two years has the number of women in congress gone above 100 out of 439. If we want this number to continue to increase so that the makeup of Congress represents the American people, we need to look to the next generation of women – us! This leaves us wondering – do Denison women have the political ambition to become the next generation of leaders?

This is not a new question and recent scholarship has examined the extent and impact of this gender gap in political ambition among college women. A particularly comprehensive review of this issue by scholars at American University found a persistent gender gap in the political ambition of college women that was equivalent to the gap in political ambition among “potential candidates” (lawyers, business leaders, educators, and activists). This indicates that the gap in ambition is caused before college and is well in place by the time women set foot on campus. The study also examined a few potential causes for this gap and identified a lack of encouragement and lack of exposure to environments that would push women to run as potential reasons this ambition gap exists.

Using data collected from Denison students in October 2021, I found that there is a significant gap in political ambition using a standard measure of it. On campus, a majority of women (62.6%) answered that they are “not at all” interested in running for political office compared to 50% of men. These statistics combined could lead one to believe that undergraduates overall are just not interested in running for office. While this may be true, it is most interesting to look at the section of campus that answered that they are definitely interested in running for political office. It is almost two times more likely for men to answer “definitely,” showing that there is a gender gap in political ambition on campus.

There is a significant gender (M-W*) gap in political ambition at Denison (p<.05)

“Please indicate the extent to which you are interested in running for political office one day.” 


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The gap in ambition is seen again when students were asked about their confidence in future qualifications to run for office. As seen in the figure below, the results were gendered with men answering that they would definitely be qualified in the future at a much higher rate than women. The inverse is also true with women more likely to answer that they will be not at all qualified.


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This gap in ambition and confidence is at odds with the fact that women hold leadership positions at the same rate as men on campus (as seen in the figure below). It should be noted that the leadership environment on Denison campus is flush with opportunities – there are 2,300 students and 160 organizations. Assuming that most clubs will have an average of 3 leaders, that means that (if all of them are filled) 20% of the student body should hold leadership positions. That fact layered on top of the deep community values we are instilled with from day one builds a culture that encourages and rewards getting involved as much as you can, sometimes with some cost. Denison has a structural system and culture that encourages involvement and leadership. This should make Denison the perfect place to gain skills and experience that would translate into political ambition, but there is a disconnect here where women are not translating their leadership experiences into confidence in their future selves at the same rate as men.

If we ever want to live in a society where saying madam president doesn’t sound odd outside a Hollywood set then we need to find out what is causing this gender gap in political ambition. As seen by the data it is not a lack of leadership experience or qualifications – there is some missing piece in the story of why there is a gender gap in political ambition. Some possible explanations that have been raised (and that I will be exploring in a second blog post) are a gap in civic skills and a lack of encouragement to run for office. We are at a historic moment in women’s political representation and while I do not think there will be a time where all 100 senators and 439 representatives are women, we should be doing all we can to build systems to ensure that the government by the people and for the people looks like the people.

Madeleine Murphy is a Junior Philosophy, Politics and Economics major with a Data for Political Research minor (say that 5 times fast). When not writing for onetwentyseven, she is dealing with the bureaucracy of student government as speaker or pulling out all the cheesy jokes as a tour guide. Find her linkedin here.

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