05/14/2013 06:20 pm ET

Women In Politics: Study Says More Women Politicians May Actually Be Hurting Cause


In an essay published in May, New York senator Kirsten Gillbrand emphasized the importance of increasing the number of women in politics. "Women’s voices are not better than men’s, they’re different and the broader perspective that we bring often leads to better results," she wrote.

However, a new study published in European Journal of Social Psychology in May 2013 claims that the rising number of women candidates may actually "foster complacency" when it comes to creating greater social change. The researchers, Elizabeth R. Brown of Montana State University and Amanda B. Diekman of Miami University, found that "support for the status quo is increased in the presence of a female versus male candidates" because seeing a female candiate in a race prompts voters to have "greater beliefs that the sociopolitical system is just." In other words, when voters see that a female is running for office, they assume that the system is fair and are less motivated to create change. As the authors put it: "Important in justifying a particular system is the belief that the system is legitimate and just."

The research consisted of three experiments. In the first experiment, 43 psychology students were asked to read about a female or male candidate running for office. They were then asked to rate their support for the candidate and their support for the sociopolitical system. The researchers found that students who read about a female candidate were more likely to perceive the sociopolitical system as just and fair than students who read about a male candidate.

In the second experiment, a different group of 90 students were asked to read about a male or a female candidate before they were asked to rate statements relating to legitimacy (example: “By far the most important reason that men, on average, make more money than women is that men and women tend to choose different career paths”) and future stability (example: “A few decades from now, the average salary for women will continue to be significantly lower than the average salary for men”). Students who read about a female candidate were more likely to view the current system as legitimate than those who read about a male candidate, though they were not more likely to view the future system as stable.

In the third experiment, another group of 95 students were asked to read about a female or a male candidate, though this time they were told that the candidate was running for the House of Representatives. They then took an Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures preferences for change and for stability. The researchers found that the students were more likely to support stability if they had read about a female candidate, which seems to confirm the hypothesis that people exposed to female candidates are more likely to view the political system as just and legitimate.

This study is the latest to examine the continued underrepresentation of women in politics. In 2010, for the first time since 1987, the U.S. made no progress in electing more women to Congress. A 2012 report compiled the seven major reasons fewer women than men run for office in the first place.

"The perception that the glass ceiling is beginning to crack does not necessarily mean that efforts toward gender equality should pause; instead, those who wish to see the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” shattered need to guard against the complacency that might result from initial successes," the researchers wrote.