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Harvard study: Political parties, not voters, hurt ambitious women candidates

Ambitious women do just fine with voters, according to a new study of 4,000 voters from Harvard University. So what’s hindering them?

Harvard study: Political parties, not voters, hurt ambitious women candidates
[Photo: vesperstock/iStock]
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You may have heard that voters penalize ambitious female candidates. This is untrue, according to a new study out of Harvard University.

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Researchers from Harvard and the University of Bath spent over three years gathering reactions from 4,000 U.K and U.S. voters to four different types of candidate ambition: career ambition, ambitious personality (determination, toughness, etc.), policy ambition, and life ambition (typically juggling family and job). They found that women with these traits were actually slightly favored by voters.

This finding overturns the long-held belief that ambition is a political liability for women—and points the blame for the glass ceiling many female candidates face toward other sources, including political parties themselves.

“One of the reasons might be not the voters, but elites within parties who often play gatekeeping roles,” says coauthor Ana Catalano Weeks, who began the project at Harvard, and has since become an assistant professor of comparative politics at the University of Bath. “This research should act as a rallying cry to women seeking political office to not downplay their aspirations.”

A few noteworthy findings stand out:

  • Female voters are more likely than male voters to support candidates with ambitious policy and career plans.
  • U.S. Republican voters are a bit less supportive of candidates with career ambition.
  • U.K. voters and U.S. Democrat voters showed no penalty toward ambitious women candidates.

The research is part of a growing number of recent studies suggesting that women’s underrepresentation in democratic parliaments worldwide is not caused by voter discrimination, says coauthor Sparsha Saha, a lecturer in government at Harvard University. She acknowledges that voter perceptions of ambition may be complicated by race and ethnicity—which is the topic of her next research project.