Why you should care
Because closing the political interest gap might be easier than we think.
Despite the election outcome, the past year has been a banner one for women: America saw its first female major party presidential nominee, and a record number of women of color swore an oath to serve in the U.S. Congress.
But over in the home of the Utes, it was a very different story. No political party there featured female nominees in races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or state auditor and treasurer last year. In the U.S., Utah ranks 37th out of 50 states for female participation in politics. Yet this gap helped spur Brigham Young University researcher Jessica Preece to investigate what might give women more interest in politics. One of her most surprising findings?
Compliments stoke women’s interest in politics.
Indeed, “women need a different type of encouragement than men,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America, a training group for female office-seekers. That encouragement could begin simply with a quiz. Preece administered an online quiz to more than 600 Americans about the U.S. government. Questions ranged from “who is the vice president of the U.S.” to “how many senators are there.” The control group, which included both genders, saw their scores at the end of the quiz and were asked about their interest in politics. The results showed a night and day difference.
When women were encouraged after taking a quiz, they were as interested (nearly as much as the men) in politics. The interest of men remained the same if they were told nice things about their knowledge or not. Intriguingly, men could actually be discouraged, the study showed: When those guys saw how they compared to other people they reported lower interest in politics. In other words, the interest of men was manipulated downward when they realized they weren’t as smart as others, while the interest of women peaked when they were told they were knowledgeable.
When it comes to women in political office, Utah hasn’t always struggled to the same degree as today. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Utah’s state government became increasingly female over time, says Morgan Lyon Cotti, an associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. The gender gap shrunk further in 2002 when Utah briefly had its first and only female governor. Since then, though, the number of women in state government has declined, and female representatives tend to come from cities rather than rural or suburban regions.
The results of Preece’s study may help find a way to increase women’s interest in politics. But, she admits, “I don’t know how long-lasting this particular effect might be. One little spurt could have an effect in the five minutes after the feedback, but 24 hours later it might not make a difference.” Steele says women might need to be encouraged repeatedly, and by people who know them, for the effect to be maximized.
Still, women are often given feedback — be it in civics class or in the workplace — so there might be a long-term impact if positivity is sustained over time, Preece hypothesizes. Another solution to increase female participation in government is to explain the benefits of leading instead of harping on the “nastiness,” former Utah state legislator Patricia Jones says. Because losing sometimes is a win in the long run for one’s career, she says: “Once you throw your hat in the ring you are an automatic leader.”
Preece’s body of work isn’t done quite yet. Most recently, she partnered with a certain state’s Republican Party to recruit female delegates — on average, 20 percent to 25 percent of delegates are female there. Encouragement in the form of a party leader reading a letter asking for female participation at regular meetings improved the number of women who ran for the delegate position. Cajoling voters to actually elect women, in addition? That made all the difference: When party leaders also read a letter encouraging diversity and explained why it was a weakness that women were underrepresented, 6 percent more women won.
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