By: Nick Santangelo

Election Day 2019 has come and gone, but the nice thing about elections is that there’s always another one on the way. And when Election Day 2020—and every election thereafter—comes along, the College of Liberal Arts would love to see a larger number of female candidates on ballots across the country. To that end, the Political Science Department’s 2019 Featherman Lecture welcomed University of Virginia Professor Jennifer Lawless on campus to discuss why women often don’t run for office and what happens when they do run.

Dr. Lawless opened her Gladfelter Hall talk by explaining that the biggest obstacles to women running for and winning office are the popularity of incumbents and the perception women have of themselves. It’s temping, the professor and one-time congressional candidate said, to fully cast the blame on sexism and a focus on women’s appearances and demeanors.

But while Dr. Lawless' research did find some evidence of sexism in the 2016 election through her research and even encountered some instances of it personally while running for office, she downplayed how much of a role those factors play.

Why do we have so few female politicians?

Dr. Lawless said her research found that “there were no differences in the volume or the context of media coverage” for male and female congressional candidates. The research also showed that approximately 95 percent of candidates received absolutely no coverage at all about their appearances.

“But if there was no bias about female candidates, why do we have so few female politicians?” Dr. Lawless asked students. “Why are there so few of them on the campaign trail to begin with?”

Through surveying lawyers and businesspeople—those most likely to run for office—the professor found that women were less likely to run and less likely to even consider running than their male peers with identical levels of knowledge and experience. So, what can be done to close that perception gap? In an interview following her talk, Dr. Lawless said it all starts when young women are in college. The political ambition gap doesn’t exist in high school students, only manifesting once students reach college campuses.

“The most effective intervention, it would seem to me, is during freshman orientation in college,” said Dr. Lawless. “We need to let these young women know that life is going to change, but they should continue to pursue their interests, and they shouldn't self-select into these environments and into these classes that might be more comfortable or that where they might have more women around them. They've got to think about the entire college experience as open to them.

“Once you take a political science class, you're more open to thinking about running for office. You're also more likely to get a political internship, you're more likely to make those connections. It becomes this reinforcing cycle, and so we've just got to make sure that freshman year women aren't selecting out of that.”

She was careful to note, however, that every woman with an interest in politics doesn’t necessarily need to become a political science major. There are many opportunities for young women to get involved, be it through internships, student government or volunteer opportunities. And with Temple University being located just a few Broad Street Lines from Philadelphia City Hall and a few hours each from Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of opportunities for College of Liberal Arts students to get involved.

“We just have to let women know that there are these opportunities to explore the political environment, whether it be in the city or town where the school is, whether it be at the state level, wherever, and that those opportunities teach them important skills.”

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