Abdulgader Bashir

Part 2: Are women under-represented in politics?


Women’s underrepresentation can be explained by both “supply-side” factors, which lower women’s ability and willingness to run for office, and “demand-side” factors, which include prejudices and biases held by voters and party leaders against women in politics. These section will explore each of these factors more in depth. 

Supply Factors

Supply factors generally refer to the aspects that influence a candidate's decision to come forward and run for office. Resources, such as time and money, in combination with  motivation and interest often shape candidates' decisions to compete for political office. 


The rising cost of  elections throughout the world has led to an over-representation of men in politics. This is because men historically have had control over resources and thus are better placed to tap into these networks due to an ease in trusting those who are similar (homosocial capital). This means that women  who enter politics tend to face additional fundraising challenges and have to work harder in order to receive similar support levels as other male politicians.  To address this gap, various organizations and donor programs focus their efforts on training women to fundraise and conduct credible and effective political campaigns. 


Party leaders sometimes argue that the supply of women in politics is low not because of their own bias, but because women themselves do not come forward to run. This argument overlooks the fact that supply gender gaps result from women not being encouraged to run for office at similar rates as men and being less likely to believe that they are qualified for office than men; potential women candidates report lower levels of interest in occupying office than similarly positioned men [i].  Women's interest in politics may be dampened by the  processes’ competitiveness;[ii] studies show that when asked to think about the competitive nature of politics, women’s interest is markedly reduced compared to men.[iii] 

In many countries, politicians  are expected to both display traditional heteronormative family roles and be successful in their careers.[iv] This social expectation creates a double bind[v] for women because it creates “unrealizable expectations [which] are also designed to undercut women’s exercise of power.”[vi] Under this system, men’s leadership competence and qualification are assumed but female leaders must prove theirs, which often requires adopting masculine traits that associated with leaders.[vii]  As a result, many women forgo either having children and focusing on their professional/political careers or raising children and entering politics later in life. Each of these decisions has an effect on how voters perceive women's candidacies.

The demands of political office on both relationships and family influence women’s decisions to run for office. Swedish female politicians who are promoted to mayoral positions are far more likely to get divorced compared to men who get the position.[ix] Such high costs can discourage women from running for office.

Demand Factors

Once women candidates decide to run for office, party leaders assess their qualificiations and decide whether to place them on the ballot. Voters must then also decide whether to support these candidates on election day. We will discuss both the party leaders' and voter' biases in turn. 

Voters’ Bias

Hostility against women's electoral runs might emerge due to several factors: conservative ideology,[xiii] believes about women's place being outside politics,[xiv] or devaluing the experiences that women bring to the table.[xv]

Though voter bias/discrimination is often used as an explanation for women’s political underrepresentation, there is no consensus in the research.[x] Some scholars for example, find that respondents to a survey believe both men and women to be equally capable as political leaders, [xvii] while other find that in municipalities where traditional gender role attitudes are strong, votes for women are low.[xi]   In the American political context, many scholars argue that bias against women is less important to candidate choice than ideology or partisanship.[xviii]

Party Leaders/Gatekeepers

Party leaders, who are key in the selection process, may prefer male candidates to female candidates. “Homophily” --- the tendency to associate and bond with those who are similar --- may contribute to party leaders baseline preference for male candidates rather than female candidates.[xix] Some research finds that party chairs prefer candidates with whom they share similar background characteristics.[xx] That is to say, male party chairs will prefer male candidates. An effect of this preference is seen in Italy where female mayors were more likely to be removed by their municipal councils when the share of male councilors is particularly large.[xxi]  

Furthermore, if party leaders are aware of voters’ bias against women, then their preference for male candidates is consistent with a votes-maximizing strategy. Party leaders also act as gate-keepers and hold women back even in absence of voters’ bias. One way they do this, is to either run them in non-winnable seats or place them lower on party lists.[xxii]

Key points

  1.  It is not enough to combat patriarchal biases against women.
  2. Society needs to promote women's economic empowerment and providing training.
  3. Party leaders should actively encourage women to run for office because this increases their likelihood of running for office. 


[i] Fox, R. L., & Lawless, J. L. (2004). Entering the Arena? Gender and the Decision to Run for OfficeAmerican Journal of Political Science48(2), 264–280.

[ii] Muriel Niederle, Lise Vesterlund, Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 122, Issue 3, August 2007, Pages 1067–1101

[iii] Preece, Jessica, and Stoddard, Olga. 2015. “‘Why Women Don't Run: Experimental Evidence on Gender Differences in Political Competition Aversion.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 117: 296–308

[iv] Gimenez, Alejandra Teresita, Karpowitz, Christopher F., Monson, J. Quin, and Preece, Jessica Robinson. 2017. “Selection Effects and Self-Presentation: How the Double Bind Strangles Women's Representation.” Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference.

[v] A ‘double bind’ is another word for a contradictory situation where you have two options, neither of which are desirable” (Jamieson, 1995, p.5).

[vi] Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. 1995. Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 18.

[vii] Jamieson, “Beyond the Double Bind” 1995, p.125; Mo, Hyunjung Cecilia. 2015. “The Consequences of Explicit and Implicit Gender Attitudes and Candidate Quality in the Calculations of Voters.” Political Behavior 37: 357–95.

[viii] Jalalzai, Farida. 2018. “A Comparative Assessment of Hillary Clinton's 2016 Presidential Race.” Socius 4: 2378023117732441; It is common for powerful men to have stay at home wives to manage their households and raise their children, whereas women who find the time and energy for politics are often those who have foregone the traditional family role in favor of public life (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013).

[ix] Folke, Olle, and Rickne, Johanna. 2017. All the Single Ladies: Job Promotions and the Durability of Marriage. Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Conference.

[x] Krook, M. (2018). Violence against Women in Politics: A Rising Global TrendPolitics & Gender, 14(4), 673-675.

[xi] Thomas Le Barbanchon, Julien Sauvagnat, Electoral Competition, Voter Bias, and Women in PoliticsJournal of the European Economic Association, Volume 20, Issue 1, February 2022, Pages 352–394

[xii] Bagues, Manuel & Campa, Pamela. (2021). Can gender quotas in candidate lists empower women? Evidence from a regression discontinuity design. Journal of Public Economics. 194.

[xiii] Paxton, Pamela & Kunovich, Sheri. (2003). Women's Political Representation: The Importance of Ideology. Social Forces. 82. 87-113.

[xiv] Arceneaux, K. (2001). The “Gender Gap” in State Legislative Representation: New Data to Tackle an Old Question. Political Research Quarterly54(1), 143–160

[xv] Murray, R. (2014). Quotas for Men: Reframing Gender Quotas as a Means of Improving Representation for All. American Political Science Review, 108(3), 520-532; Franceschet, Susan, Krook, Mona Lena, and Piscopo, Jennifer M., eds. 2012. The Impact of Quotas on Women's Descriptive, Substantive, and Symbolic Representation. New York: Oxford University Press

[xvi] Palmer, Barbara, and Simon, Dennis. 2006. Breaking the political glass ceiling: Women and congressional elections. New York: Routledge; Lawless, Jennifer L. 2015. “Female Candidates and Legislators.” Annual Review of Political Science, 18: 349–66; Seltzer, Richard, Newman, Jody, and Leighton, Melissa V.. 1997. Sex as a Political Variable: Women as Candidates and Voters in U.S. Elections. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[xvii] Taylor, Paul, Morin, Rich, Cohn, D'Vera, Clark, April, and Wang, Wendy. 2008. A Paradox in Public Attitudes: Men or Women: Who's the Better Leader” Pew Research Center.

[xviii] Dolan, Kathleen. 2004. “The impact of candidate sex on evaluations of candidates for the US House of Representatives.” Social Science Quarterly 85 (1): 206–217; roockman, David E., Carnes, Nicholas, Crowder-Meyer, Melody, and Skovron, Christopher. 2017. “Having Their Cake and Eating It, Too: (Why) Local Party Leaders Prefer Nominating Extreme Candidates.” Working paper. Accessible at https://people.stanford.edu/dbroock/sites/default/files/broockman_carnes_crowdermeyer_skovron_party_leaders_polarization.pdf

[xix] Sanbonmatsu, Kira. 2002. “Gender Stereotypes and Vote Choice.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (1): 20–34.

[xx] Niven, David. 1998. “Party Elites and Women Candidates: The Shape of Bias.” Women & Politics 19: 57–80.

[xxi] Stefano Gagliarducci, M. Daniele Paserman, Gender Interactions within Hierarchies: Evidence from the Political Arena, The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 79, Issue 3, July 2012, Pages 1021–1052

[xxii] Esteve-Volart, B., & Bagues, M. (2012). Are women pawns in the political game? Evidence from elections to the Spanish Senate. Journal of public Economics96(3-4), 387-399.

Additional Open Access Resources

  1. Women's leadership and political participation
  2. Women's underrepresentation, it's not just an ambition gap
  3. Breaking the bias in candidate selection in Africa
  4. Obstacles to female leadership