Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York first decided she wanted to be a senator when she was 7 or 8. Two decades later, as a law firm associate, she went to an event featuring the first lady, Hillary Clinton, and heard her speech as a personal call to public service.
So Ms. Gillibrand — after waiting another 10 years — ran for Congress.
“It took 10 years volunteering to have the actual self-confidence to say, ‘I can run for office,’” she said. “Women are the biggest self-doubters.”
When women run for political office, they are just as likely as men to be elected. The main reason they are so underrepresented is that they don’t run in the first place.
Even as Americans near a vote that could elect the nation’s first female president, the pipeline isn’t filling up. The number of women serving in office stalled in the 1990s. Women now make up 19 percent of members of Congress, 25 percent of state legislators, 12 percent of governors and 18 percent of mayors. Recent data show the gender gap is just as glaring for the next generation of leaders.
In the last mayoral elections in the top 100 cities, only 19.3 percent of candidates were women, according to a new report by the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. Among college students, men are twice as likely as women to have considered running for office someday, according to a study by Jennifer L. Lawless of American University and Richard L. Fox of Loyola Marymount University.
“Often women don’t see running as viable even when they are qualified,” said Victoria Lawson, an author of the CUNY report.
The so-called ambition gap has a few causes, researchers say. Women are less likely than men to be encouraged by parents, teachers or party leaders to run — yet they are also less likely to run without being prodded. They underestimate their abilities and assume they need to be much more qualified than men to run for the same office.
A variety of research has found that women are as likely as men to win, and that voters decide based on a candidate’s party, not gender. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a gender penalty: It is difficult to quantify whether gender costs women votes because people are unlikely to admit sexism in polls, and women tend to wait until they are more qualified than men to run for the same office.
Men, however, are 15 percent more likely to be recruited to run, Ms. Lawless and Mr. Fox found.
Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon was a lawyer who worked as an advocate for a women’s organization when a state senator called and asked if she would be interested in a legislative appointment.