To see another record year for women candidates, we have to do more than ask women to run

By Kelly Dittmar and Debbie Walsh

There is a myth that has permeated women and politics commentary and it goes like this: women need to be asked to run for political office, and it takes an average of seven “asks” for a woman to make the decision to run. This statistic has been used repeatedly to motivate more asking, often paired with a call to action for women (and men) in an audience to encourage a woman to run for office…seven times. But here’s the thing — there is no research that supports this idea that asking a woman to run a certain number of times will alter her candidacy calculus, nor could there be.

Just imagine the complications of trying to determine this magic number: what “counts” as an ask — a direct request from a friend, hearing a speech at an event, or a twitter meme calling on women to run for office? And how do you isolate the moment when a woman makes the decision to run for office? Is it when that internal voice concedes; the moment she says it out loud; or when she files paperwork for candidacy? The point is that this statistic is an unattainable one from the start.

What the research can — and has — shown us is that encouragement is more important in women’s calculus about running for office than it is for men. When the Center for American Women and Politics surveyed state legislators in 2008, we found that women are less likely than men to be “self-starters” and more likely to be “pure recruits.” In other words, women are more likely to be recruited to run than to come to candidacy entirely on their own. In explaining the cultural and structural reasons why women may rely more on recruitment than men, our findings indicate that women — and especially women of color — are also more likely to be discouraged from running for office. Our report concludes, “Women need encouragement and support, not only to persuade them to run but also to counteract any efforts aimed at dissuading them from running.”

So encouragement — and asking — does matter, and it appears to matter more for women than men in making the decision to run for political office. But all encouragement is not equal. The CAWP study finds that the most influential sources of recruitment for women are political ones — party officials or elected or appointed leaders who women can rationally perceive as most aware of and possibly most instrumental in their chances of success.

Complicating this conclusion, however, is the anecdotal evidence from the 2018 election that shows that some of the traditional deterrents to women’s candidacies may have been superseded by a sense of urgency that provided the incentive many women needed to run. In a recent analysis of non-incumbent women candidates for the U.S. House, for example, we found that nearly half of all Democratic women cited feelings of urgency, anger, frustration, or threat as motivating their decision to run for Congress in 2018. Additionally, prominent examples of women refusing to wait their turn to run — like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — counter the idea that some critical mass of encouragement is the key to motivating women to run for the first time.

Do these examples disprove a strong literature on the gender differences in candidate emergence? No. But do they challenge the over-generalized characterization of women as passive players in their own candidacy story — waiting for others to open the door to candidacy instead of pushing through it themselves? We think (hope) so.

2020 promises to be another year where we continue the conversation about women’s political power. But the historic number of women running for the presidency should not overshadow the need to expand the number of women candidates across levels of office. Even in a record-setting year for women candidates in 2018, they were fewer than 25% of candidates who filed to run for Congress. What do we need to do if we want to see the pool of women candidates grow again in 2020?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Keep telling your friends and colleagues (and perhaps yourself) that they should consider candidacy and push back against discouraging voices who claim that a non-traditional (cue not white male) candidate cannot or should not run. But don’t assume that asking — whether one or seven times — will be enough to ensure that more women run and win.

Just as women are rational decision-makers over if and when they decide to run, we have to be rational in our strategies for increasing the number and proportion of women in the candidate pool. For many women, incentives for candidacy will go beyond or be separate from simply making the ask.

Encouragement may come in the form of financial support — which, like it or not, is a key factor in waging a competitive campaign. Encouragement also means mapping out the path to success for women, even if that success is measured in terms other than votes on Election Day; if success includes disrupting the norms of politics and/or pushing an important policy dialogue, as many women did in 2018, then women may decide the potential benefits outweigh the costs. Relatedly, encouragement also means making an affirmative case for candidacy to women. Women state legislators tell us that the most important reason they ran was a concern about a public policy issue. In an era of broken politics, women have to see officeholding as an avenue to making change. In that vein, perhaps our time would be better spent showing women how and where their voices will matter in government than repeatedly asking them to take the plunge.

Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers. Debbie Walsh is the Director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).