The Denison Difference might be hurting women’s political ambition

By Maddy Murphy

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

I am the first female speaker of the Denison Campus Government Association in at least 6 years. I am not saying this to toot my own horn. I want to point out that while the nation might be advancing in political gender parity (this congress has come the closest), one of the breeding grounds for the next generation of leaders (college campuses) still has startling gender gaps in political ambition and perceived qualification. In my last post, I introduced the significant gender gap on Denison’s campus in political ambition and identifying as qualified to run in the future. In this post, I hope to try and find out why this might be.

Sometimes closing this gap is as simple as sending a letter. A particularly fascinating study was done by Brigham Young University that ran a field experiment to test what affects female political ambition. They enlisted party leaders to send letters to the leaders of precinct-level caucus meetings with the goal of stocking the supply of and demand for female candidates. These seemingly small interventions had an impact on the election – they saw an increase in women candidates and women elected to political office. This data shows that a small change to the situation has a real impact on whether women will run for office, leading to the conclusion that ambition can be significantly increased by situational factors. The situational factors argument is furthered by an American University study, which found a fascinating link between increased ambition and playing organized sports, as well as a connection between ambition and being socialized to run by media and family.

Using data collected from Denison students in October 2021 I looked at involvement in campus leadership, athletics, and academics as possible situational factors that could have an impact on political ambition and feelings of future qualification to run for office. The most consequential should be leadership roles on campus. Being involved in clubs and organizations should ensure you are gaining the civic skills, confidence, and soft skills that you may not get in classes. We asked Denison students “Have you ever been elected to a leadership position of any group or organization (such as a club, team, student government, etc.)? How many times?” As seen below there is a consistent gender gap in ambition and qualification regardless of how many leadership positions a student holds. The gap does start to close for ambition when students have held 3 or 5 leadership roles which is encouraging but the gap in qualification is at its highest at higher levels of leadership – not a great sign.

The next factor we looked at was Academic Achievement. Many of our US presidents have ivy league degrees to their names, so some might jump to the conclusion that academic achievement is what spurs political ambition and qualification. It also could be argued that once you are identified as a successful student, especially at Denison, you will also receive increased encouragement and mentorship which has been found to be a big factor in decreasing the gender gap in ambition and qualification. But the data tells a slightly different story – academic achievement (as measured by GPA) does decrease the gap in feeling qualified to run in the future by boosting women’s efficacy, but does nothing for ambition.

Perhaps the weak link of academics to ambition is a function of the major program men and women choose. The largest gap is found in those who are Undecided and those in Humanities majors. This is troubling because some of the political “feeder” majors are housed under Humanities like Philosophy and History. The other likely feeder majors are housed under Social Science so it is not surprising that that is one of the majors women feel the most qualified in (but there is still a gender gap). These results go against the argument that you can fix the gender gap in ambition or qualification by teaching it – if the majors learning about politics every day do not feel equally qualified then there must be something deeper causing the gap.

The last involvement factor I studied was Varsity Sports. Sports have recently been seen as an innovative way to increase female political ambition. As stated in the American University study, “The competitiveness associated with sports appears to serve as a significant predictor of interest in running for office.” They found that this competitiveness (and other sports-related factors) make women who had played sports 25% more likely to express political ambition than those who did not. So is organized sports the magic cure on campus? Not quite. Being a varsity athlete actually has a negative impact on political ambition regardless of gender and has a large negative impact on feelings of qualifications for women.

The results presented here stand in direct contradiction to what American University found when surveying national college students about involvement and ambition. Why is Denison different? There is no definitive answer, but I would hypothesize that Denison has a unique culture of involvement. That means that if you add up the time spent in clubs, class, building the relationships that make us a relational college, and practice for student-athletes, there is just no time to think about political ambition. I also wonder if the timing of these surveys has an effect. The AU study was in 2013 and ours was in 2021 – in radically different political environments and with the added presence of COVID exhaustion in 2021. In addition, because of COVID (and what feels like the world falling apart) our certainty in the future could be much lower, which could affect people’s answers about their future qualifications.

The gendered gap in political ambition is complex and there is no obvious, simple fix. While it is surprising that none of these factors had a consistent and significant impact, I would be more shocked if one was a conclusive fix to the problem. Social problems are tricky and while it is helpful to quantify them, they cannot be solved like a mathematical problem. Despite the unexpected results that go against previous scholarship, I am more convinced than ever that we should still try. Our results show that the science is not settled yet and there is still room for the Denison community to dig in, have the uncomfortable conversations about who is not being heard right now, and ensure that every student no matter their gender, race, or economic status can see themselves as the next generation of leaders. Our nation desperately needs a wave of compassionate, diverse, educated, and sharp leaders to take the reins – just the type of leaders Denison can and will produce.

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 on linkedin.

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