New research by Dr. Sparsha Saha Harvard and Dr Ana Catalano Weeks University of Bath scholars finds that voters don't punish ambitious women candidates running for office

August 19, 2020
New research by Harvard and University of Bath scholars finds that voters don't punish ambitious women candidates running for office. The study, published in the journal Political Behavior, challenges the long-held assumption that negative views about ambition are standing in the way of female candidates in politics. Following Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2016, a notion that ‘unbridled ambition’ had cost her votes gained traction. Then-President Obama suggested that ambition might be a political liability for women, but not men.
 
Through a series of five survey experiments in both the US and UK, Ana Catalano Weeks, an Assistant Professor at the University of Bath, and Sparsha Saha, Lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University, explore the notion that voters may be biased against female political candidates who are perceived as 'ambitious.' Overall, these scholars find that female candidates with ambitious traits were not punished by voters -- in fact, they were slightly favored. 
 
Dr Ana Catalano Weeks explains: “For a long time a popular belief has persisted that ambitious women seeking political office get penalised by voters, but our results suggest no evidence to support this assumption. Ambition, including for women, is not a negative trait for voters —if anything it’s attractive, especially for Democratic voters.

“Women remain underrepresented in parties and parliaments and one of the reasons might be not the voters, but elites within parties who often play a gatekeeping role. Women might also perceive that they will face additional discrimination if they are perceived as ambitious. This research should act as a rallying cry to women seeking political office not to downplay their aspirations.”

Study co-author Dr Sparsha Saha adds: “Our research is part of a line of recent studies which suggest that voter discrimination is not the cause of women’s underrepresentation in advanced democracies, and that norms about women with traditionally ‘masculine’ traits like ambition are changing.”
 
This work has been covered by Fortune magazine, the New York Times, and The Telegraph recently. For media inquiries, please contact Dr. Sparsha Saha (saha@fas.harvard.edu).
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