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What it will take for women to win

Women are more politically mobilized than ever before — but that’s not enough to get them into office. A POLITICO investigation reveals what’s really stopping women from breaking through.

One morning this spring, 80 women of different ages, parties and backgrounds gathered in a hotel ballroom in Ames, Iowa, to learn how to run for office. They poured themselves coffee, nodded to their neighbors and listened to experts explain the relative merits of radio ads vs. billboards. Six months earlier, many would not have imagined spending a Friday this way. But then came the 2016 election.

Monic Behnken, an African-American sociologist at Iowa State University, arrived with a stack of post cards for her local school board campaign. “When I woke up on Nov. 9,” she said, “I knew I couldn’t leave this world to my children without doing something.” A few tables over, Deidre DeJear was quietly taking notes, preparing a run for Iowa secretary of state. “I was never one of those kids who said I wanted to be president when I grew up,” she said. “But running is less about me and more about, ‘Who can I trust to get this done?’ Right now, I trust myself.”

Monic Behnken is running for the school board in Ames, Iowa.
The site of a recent Ready to Run training session.

The United States has flatlined when it comes to electing women: At the local, state and federal level, women hold fewer than 1 in every 4 elected offices, and the ratio hasn’t budged much lately. The U.S. ranks 101st, below China, Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to gender equity in our national legislature—down from 52nd two decades ago.

Studies show that women tend to win elections at the same rate as men—but they are far less likely to run at all. A POLITICO investigation into the causes of gender inequality in electoral politics found that the traditional explanations—fundraising imbalances, sexism in the media and the voting booth, unyielding party bureaucracies and more—have faded in importance. Today, the greatest obstacle may be less conspicuous: America has a shortage of female politicians because, to put it simply, women don’t want the job.

The Gender Gap in Political Ambition

Women are much less likely than men to consider running for office

Ever considered running for office…

Ever considered running for office…

But since the presidential election, American women have been behaving unusually. First, in January, approximately 4.2 million people attended more than 600 women’s marches nationwide—making it the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history, according to estimates collected by Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and Jeremy Pressman at the University of Connecticut. In the months afterward, the number of women who filed to run for the Virginia Legislature went up 75 percent over the last comparable cycle in 2013, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In New Jersey, the only other state with legislative elections this year, the number of female candidates is up 25 percent.

Nationwide, organizations that train potential female candidates also report big bumps this year—with attendance up 145 percent in Philadelphia, 82 percent in Oklahoma and 67 percent in New Jersey. The Iowa training, a nonpartisan event held by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, was quadruple its usual size. Organizers had to switch venues twice to accommodate the crowd.

Sitting up front was Jaime Allen, a stay-at-home mother who had immigrated to Iowa from Canada as a teenager. She’d also decided to run on Nov. 9, while taking the Oath of Allegiance to become a United States citizen. “I love this country,” she said. “I have four kids, and I want them to have clean water, schools that work and health care.” She’d gotten up before the sun rose to drive 21/2 hours to the training, but she didn’t look tired.

Allen’s husband, an American, has suggested they just move to Canada. Wouldn’t that be easier than running for state legislature against an incumbent Republican man in rural Iowa? But Allen, 29, has lived more than half her life in Iowa. “This is all I know,” she says. “I don’t know the metric system.”

Historically, women have needed to be persuaded to consider running. But this year, a lot of women seem to have skipped that step, according to Debbie Walsh, head of the Rutgers Center, which ran its annual training in March. “These women didn’t seem like they needed to be recruited, which was new,” Walsh said. “They had recruited themselves already.”

It’s tempting to call it a movement. A new poll sponsored by POLITICO, American University and Loyola Marymount University found a dramatic spike in political activity among Democratic women in particular. In the survey last month of more than 2,000 college-educated, employed adults, nearly four in 10 Democratic women reported that they’d signed a letter or petition about a political issue in the past six months—triple the percentage who reported having done so before the election. Seven out of 10 Democratic women said they were “appalled” by Donald Trump’s victory. (Democratic men also reported new levels of agitation and activism, though not as much as their female counterparts; Republicans, men and women, reported no major changes.)

But the POLITICO investigation also found plenty of reasons for skepticism. Even after Trump’s victory, women in our survey were still less likely than men to say they’ve considered running for office. The gender gap in political ambition was a solid 15 percentage points—consistent with research going back over a decade. Men were twice as likely as women to have “seriously” considered running. “What we’re seeing is the first key ingredient: heightened levels of action among women who might not have ever gone to a march before,” says Jennifer Lawless, an American University professor who crafted the poll and has been studying gender and politics for two decades. But there’s no evidence that Trump has fundamentally altered the gap in political ambition. For lasting change, Lawless says, “This activism has to be channeled by political parties and organizers.”

The barriers that discouraged women candidates before the presidential election still exist, after all. Converting new energy into candidacies will require new ideas. “Having this interest is great,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run in 20 states. The organization saw an 87 percent increase in applications after the election. “But how do we turn that into women filing papers and getting on ballots? It requires an investment.”

After interviewing candidates, elected officials, party operatives and researchers around the country, POLITICO has identified the key moments when women drift away from seeking elected office—and specific occasions when they could be nudged to reconsider. These insights suggest three untapped strategies that could significantly boost the number of women in elected office over the next decade, should the political will to run exist. None require massive infusions of funding or structural changes to elections. They do require a better understanding of what makes women run—or not.

Right now, the resources directed at this problem come late, when women are already running for office—usually at the national level. That’s like trying to develop a bench in Game 7 of the World Series. So the first and most straightforward way to cultivate more women candidates is to get to them much earlier.

Students who reported being encouraged to run for student government and for political office later in life

By influencer and student gender

Urged to run for elected office later in life…

By at least

one parent

By friends

By teacher

By grandparent

Suggested by

three or more

sources

Note: Reponses are based on college students who are reflecting on their experiences in high school and college. The gender gap is statistically significant at p

Source: Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” March 2013 report, Women and Politics Institute at American University

Urged to run for elected office later in life……

By at least one parent

By friends

By teacher

By grandparent

Received suggestion

from 3+ sources

Note: Reponses are based on college students who are reflecting on their experiences in high school and college. The gender gap is statistically significant at p

Source: Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” March 2013 report, Women and Politics Institute at American University

The second strategy is aggressively practical: Go where the female politicians already are. School boards are the only elected bodies in America that have ever come close to achieving gender parity. But right now, the vast majority of these women do not seek higher office after their service ends. They get the best political training in America, and then they go home.

The third and most ambitious strategy is for party recruiters to approach women—and men—with an entirely different sales pitch: one that reframes politics altogether. It turns out that the gender gap disappears once women start thinking of politics as it actually should be. When women see political office as a way to fix problems and improve their communities, they become just as eager to run as men.

All of this matters because, to be blunt, women may actually be better at politics. Not all politics but the kind that Americans say they want to see more often. Female politicians are more likely to say they entered politics because of a specific policy concern. (Men are more likely to say they were looking to fulfill a lifelong dream, according to multiple surveys of state legislators over the past 15 years.) Women are also more likely to sponsor bills—and, when they’re in the minority party, women tend to keep their proposals alive longer, partly by reaching across the aisle, according to a 2013 American Journal of Political Science study of legislative effectiveness.

In 2013, it was a group of female senators who broke the impasse after the government shutdown, as Jay Newton-Small details in her book “Broad Influence.” “[Women] become problem-solvers, rather than problem-makers,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in “Representation Matters,” a new study of women in Congress shared in advance with POLITICO. “We have problem-makers among senators who are men. We have none among women.”

What’s most vexing about the lack of female candidates is that so many of the structural obstacles to their success have diminished: Women running for most elected offices (other than president and vice president) no longer seem to face overtly biased media coverage, according political scientists who have analyzed the coverage of hundreds of Congressional elections over the past seven years. And despite the widely held belief that women have a harder time raising money, the evidence suggests otherwise: Since the 1980s, women have proved equally adept at fundraising for U.S. House races, according to a comprehensive analysis by Barbara Burrell in her 2014 book “Gender in Campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives.” Studies of state-level races reach similar conclusions.

“There’s no evidence that women need to work harder to raise money,” Burrell says.

These days, the obstacles have more to do with our political traditions, the entrenched habits of party officials and the stories women tell themselves. But in this time of vicious partisanship and deep cynicism towards politicians, there is also opportunity: not only to elect more women, but to change politics. The evidence suggests a path forward, not just for Democrats but for Republicans, who need female recruits more desperately. (Women make up a third of Democrats in Congress but only 9 percent of Republicans.)

“We come at things in a different way,” Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) told the Rutgers Center, “and since 52 percent of the population is female, it behooves us to make sure that we have a voice, a woman’s voice in the discussions.”

Whatever the nation’s differences, voters can probably agree that all Americans deserve a political class that does not fill them with shame; one that reflects not just their demographics but the kinds of people they want their children to be.

Girls Are the New Recruits

America now has more female farmers and ranchers than members of Congress, on a percentage basis. Women’s proportion of members of Congress actually went down in 2010—for the first time since the 1970s. And the impact is more than just symbolic, as many women in Congress will tell you. “Well, hell, we’re an institution that runs by numbers,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told the Rutgers Center. “You have to have votes, and there’s just not enough of us here.”

At the state level, the days when women made slow but steady progress ended around the same time as “Seinfeld.” The percentage of female state legislators has stalled for nine election cycles, holding steady at 25 percent. There are currently six female governors—out of 50.

At the same time, women are more likely than men to graduate from college and enter law school. They earn almost half the undergraduate degrees in business and management. Politicians come disproportionately from these demographics (which is why POLITICO’s poll targeted college-educated, employed adults), but women have not exchanged their degrees for political currency. Women care about politics, clearly: They’ve voted at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1980. But four out of every five members of Congress are still male.

It’s possible that women are just being rational, as many skeptics of politics-as-usual insist. Doesn’t it make sense to avoid a job that robs you of your privacy, requires you to beg for money from special interests, and subjects you to constant criticism and conflict?

But there are some 500,000 elected offices in the U.S., most of whom are at the state and local levels. The vast majority of elected officials never appear on CNN. Many do not even face opponents. Over a third of state legislators run uncontested. On most days, politics is not a blood sport; it’s community service.

Without a doubt, too many campaigns cost far too much money—especially at the national level. But in many states, the average campaign for the legislature runs about $ 20,000. Most winning school board campaigns cost less than $ 5,000. The media focuses on the X Games of politics—contested congressional and presidential races. But the day-to-day duties of most politicians consist of helping their constituents, eating pancakes in fire stations and voting on legislation. It’s less “House of Cards” and more Kiwanis Club.

One reason many women don’t run is that they’ve been misled about the job—and their own odds. Women consistently underestimate their qualifications and their chances of winning—and overestimate the bias they will face in the public sphere, according to research by Lawless and Richard Fox at Loyola Marymount University, who have surveyed thousands of potential political candidates about their assumptions and opinions. To compound the problem, other people, including party officials, colleagues and family members, are less likely to encourage women to run than men, Lawless and Fox have found.

It’s a math problem, at its most basic level: Only 2 percent of people ever run for office. If half the population underestimates its odds—and is never encouraged to reconsider—you end up with a skewed pool of candidates.

Deidre DeJear, one of the women at the Iowa training, started politicking before she could vote. In high school, she made yard signs and knocked on doors for her grandmother’s election-commissioner campaign in Mississippi. In college, DeJear volunteered for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. She did it again in 2012, becoming the Obama campaign’s African-American vote director in Iowa.

Never did it occur to her to run for office herself. “I always imagined myself being in that type of [political] environment,” she says, “but never the candidate.” In this way, DeJear is typical. Women do not picture themselves in office—partly because no one around them does either.

In 2012, Lawless and Fox surveyed 2,100 college students about their political experiences and interests. Young men were significantly more likely to say a parent had encouraged them to run for office one day. In fact, men were more likely to have been urged to run by almost anyone—from friends to teachers to grandparents. But parents have the most profound impact on a child’s political ambition, and both mothers and fathers seem to be more supportive of their sons entering politics than their daughters. In the study, 40 percent of young men reported that at least one parent had urged them to run one day—compared with 29 percent of young women.

The gap in political ambition between men and women opens up in college, Lawless and Fox have found. But the groundwork for this divergence settles in well before then, when girls and boys are imagining the people they could be. The good news is that if parents encourage their daughters to run for office, the gender gap disappears. Of the college women whose parents had regularly suggested they run for office one day, about half said they would definitely like to do so. “Parental encouragement,” Lawless and Fox concluded, “has the potential to be a great equalizer.”

If political parties want more women in office, they can start by getting to them much earlier. The organization that has had the most success in electing women—and especially women of color—is EMILY’s List, which backs pro-abortion rights Democratic women. But the vast majority of money from groups like EMILY’s List comes at the end of the pipeline—in the form of campaign donations when women are already running. And most goes to women running for national office who already have substantial war chests—not to less-established local and state candidacies that can build a bench for national campaigns down the line.

Kimberly Graham, a lawyer and single mother who has never run before, is considering running for Senate in 2020.
At Ready to Run trainings, potential candidates learn how to fundraise, talk to the media and craft their messages.

After Trump’s victory, EMILY’s List vowed to double the money it spends on state and local races to $ 6 million over two years. That makes sense. But given that EMILY’s List raised $ 90 million last election cycle and the percentage of women in Congress didn’t budge, lasting change may require more creative investments, earlier in the pipeline.

“We have to diversify our strategies,” says Erin Loos Cutraro, CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan group that encourages women to run for office. “It’s not to suggest we should no longer fund candidates when they’re running, but there is an insufficient number of women running.”

On the right, where women are particularly scarce, there is no equivalent to EMILY’s List. The closest comparable organization would be Susan B. Anthony List, which supports male and female anti-abortion politicians and spent $ 18 million last cycle—one-fifth the amount raised by EMILY’s List. “There isn’t an infrastructure on the Republican side the way there is on the Democratic side,” says Walsh at Rutgers. “The dearth of women begets the dearth of women.”

Why isn’t the GOP electing more women?

Republican strategists weigh in. Read the story →

POLITICO’s poll results suggest Democratic organizations may be seizing the moment to try to recruit more women: Unlike past surveys, which have shown a gender gap in recruitment, POLITICO’s results indicated that Democratic men and women were about equally likely to say they’d been asked to run by a party official or activist. But the numbers remain small: Only 5 percent of the women surveyed said they’d been recruited this way.

Over time, other organizations have begun to target women’s imaginations, instead of their PACs—and to do so earlier in their lives, before the gender gap opens up. Running Start, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., educates high school and college women about politics and trains them to run for student government. (Women who run for student council in college are more likely to say they plan to run for office as adults.) Of the college women who run after taking Running Start’s on-campus training, 90 percent win.

“We don’t go in there and say, ‘This is how you get a campaign manager,’” says Susannah Wellford, Running Start’s president and founder. Instead, she asks young women to think about a problem they have encountered—and consider the solution. “If you saw your grandmother go into long-term care and have to sell off the family assets,” Wellford suggests, “you want to make it easier for other people.”

By focusing on young women’s pre-existing expertise, the training boosts their confidence. College women who participated in Running Start’s program in 2016 were 65 percent more likely to say they were very or somewhat confident to run for office afterwards, according to a before-and-after survey of 665 participants. “Just telling them to run is good,” Wellford says, “but you need to really get into the psychology of why it is still so daunting.” If she had more resources, she says, she’d train girls even earlier—ideally in middle school.

DeJear does not remember anyone suggesting she should run for office as a child. But during the 2012 presidential campaign, she found herself repeatedly consulting the secretary of state’s office in Iowa. She needed the office to help residents learn if they had lost their voting rights—and she wondered why the office wasn’t more active. “I started to realize that our opportunity to vote was held in the hands of this office,” she says.

After the last Obama campaign, a friend asked DeJear to run her campaign for school board. “It wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be,” she remembers, though her friend won. Then another friend asked her to run yet another school board campaign. That race was even harder. DeJear found herself going door to door in a college neighborhood—and trying to persuade 20-something students to vote in a local school-board election.

“If education is failing the students who live in this community, it’s ultimately going to fail you,” she told them. “You want to make sure there’s low crime. If you’re an education major, you want to make sure these schools have what they need to be successful.” She discovered she could convince most of them, and it was a thrill to see in their eyes that they understood. Her friend won her race.

Gradually, DeJear started to realize that if she gave people a reason to vote, they would do it. She’d been increasingly frustrated by public disengagement and hyperpartisanship, but maybe the apathy she’d encountered on so many voters’ front stoops was negotiable. And who better to make the case to vote than the secretary of state?

One day, DeJear researched the office’s duties online in the Iowa Code. “I was a little bit of a nerd about it,” she says. She felt like she was reading her dream job description. “I could totally do this,” she remembers thinking. “In my mind, I was like, ‘I wish this was a job someone could just hire me for, because I could knock this out of the park.’”

Deidre DeJear running a training for nonprofits in Iowa last year.

But since it was an elected position, DeJear paused. She debated her qualifications—in her head and over lunches with friends and mentors. Time went by. She registered for trainings and researched her opposition. “My question was, ‘Am I skilled enough to do this? Am I experienced enough?’” This deliberation went on for a year.

Remember: DeJear was a woman who had worked on five winning campaigns and met two presidents. She had a college degree, supportive parents and her own marketing business. Unlike most people, she already knew how to file papers and ask for money. “The challenge,” she said, “is more internal.”

In a 2011 survey of nearly 4,000 male and female lawyers, business leaders, educators and political activists (the kinds of people most likely to consider running for office), Lawless and Fox found that men were almost 60 percent more likely than women to consider themselves “very qualified” to run for office. This was despite the fact that there was no observable difference in their actual qualifications. Among the more humble men and women, the ones who considered themselves not qualified to run, men were still more likely to have considered running anyway.

In POLITICO’s poll this May, Republican men were more likely than any other group to have considered running for office. Forty-one percent said they’d considered the idea. Democratic men were a close second. “Republican men think they can do everything, and Democratic men think they can do almost everything,” Lawless jokes. Democratic women fell into third place, with 24 percent having ever considered a run, and just 20 percent of GOP women said they’d thought about it.

Women not only underestimate their own qualifications; they underestimate the odds of all women. Less than half of the women surveyed by Lawless and Fox said that women win races as often as similarly situated men. Interestingly, men had more confidence in women’s ability to fundraise and win than women did.

Political recruiters are familiar with this dynamic. “I’ve recruited a lot of men and a lot of women,” says Liesl Hickey, a veteran GOP strategist. “And you know, I never had a man say to me, ‘I don’t think I’m an expert in foreign policy. I don’t think I understand the tax code.’ Women really are focused on those things.”

Once upon a time, women’s doubts would have been well-founded. In 1984, less than a third of Americans said the country would be governed better if more women held public office. But when Gallup repeated that survey three years ago, almost two-thirds of Americans agreed. As female politicians have become slightly less rare and exotic, voters and reporters have started to treat them more fairly. For their 2016 book “Women on the Run,” Lawless and Danny Hayes at George Washington University examined 10,000 local newspaper articles pertaining to every House race in 2010 and 2014 and found no evidence that the gender of the candidates affected the volume or content of coverage.

But perception matters more than reality. “If women think the system is biased against them,” Lawless and Fox have concluded, “then the empirical reality … is almost meaningless.”

Other countries have boosted the number of female politicians by enacting quotas: requirements that a minimum number of seats or ballot slots go to women. In the U.S., where affirmative action policies polarized the public and ended up in the courts, quotas are unlikely to take hold. Moreover, parties do not manage elections the way they do overseas. Here, the onus is on the individual candidate—who must raise money, set up campaign organizations and build a coalition. This means that American candidates must be even more confident, risk-taking and self-promoting in order to succeed. All those skills are more common (and more encouraged) in boys and men, generally speaking.

As of last month, DeJear had set up an exploratory committee but hadn’t yet told her grandmother about her plans. “She’s one of those people who, as soon as I say something, everyone and their mom is going to know,” DeJear says. “I am waiting until I am absolutely sure.” She hopes to announce in July, she says.

School Boards are the Ultimate Boot Camps

People used to ask Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) if it was a lifelong dream to serve in Congress. She had to disappoint them. At no point in her childhood did she fantasize about running for Congress—or anything.

Instead, in 2001, she read in the local paper that there were open seats on her town’s school board in Melrose, Massachusetts. “I had never ever thought of being on a ballot before,” says Clark, an attorney. “I did it because I had two sons and a baby on the way.” She wanted the town to move toward full-day kindergarten, so she ran—and won. Eventually, she ran for her state legislature, too—and then Congress, winning a heavily contested Democratic primary against a local sheriff in 2013.

The school board was her political boot camp, she told me during an interview at her House office in Washington, D.C. “There’s no escaping your constituents. The deli counter at the supermarket became a very treacherous place.” During her tenure, the board had to close two elementary schools—“something I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” she says. “But it taught me a lot about how to listen to people and the need to have a good process.”

It’s often assumed that women don’t run because they’re too busy taking care of their children. And the prospect of commuting to distant state capitals or to Washington, far from their families, discourages many women from running, according to political recruiters. “Pretty much every woman candidate we didn’t get, it was around family issues—the travel, going back and forth,” says Hickey, who was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014. “They didn’t see how they were going to do it.”

But when it comes to school boards, many women say they decided to run because of their children. Having children has a way of focusing the mind. Abstract problems become real and present dangers. That helps explain why the only elected office in the country that approaches gender balance is the school board. America has more than 90,000 school board members, about 43 percent of whom are women. That’s about 39,000 women who have run for office and won, who have faced down brutal public scrutiny, who cannot get coffee without being ambushed by a constituent. School boards don’t get a lot of respect, but they are responsible for the education of 52 million children, $ 600 billion in spending and 6 million employees. Nearly half of school board members self-identify as moderates. They run for office in order to make things better—not to be powerful.

Very few women (or men) use the school board as a stepping stone to higher office. But this does not mean they couldn’t be persuaded to do so. Based on a survey of school board members in Pennsylvania, Jennie Sweet-Cushman at Chatham University found that nearly three-quarters of female members were at least open to the possibility of running for higher office. But male members reported receiving higher levels of encouragement from both their personal and political networks.

If female school board members were also encouraged to run, more would do so. “Both men and women appear profoundly encouraged by those closest to them prompting them to seek higher office,” Sweet-Cushman found. Women seem particularly susceptible to the encouragement of friends and family members. Half-jokingly, Sweet-Cushman suggests that she could get more women to run if she went on a “speaking tour to husbands.” Party leaders, meanwhile, typically do not get involved in school board races because most such races are nonpartisan. But that seems like a mistake: School boards are an untapped talent pool, particularly for women. “I haven’t heard of anyone recruiting women from school boards intentionally, systematically,” Sweet-Cushman says.

Clark and other women who rose to higher office after the school board (like Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)) are exceptions. Typically, Clark says, “Women on the school board feel they don’t have the right experience. People see it as too big a jump.” In fact, she says, “It’s a great training ground.” As the new recruitment vice-chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, she says she hopes to persuade other women to do the same. “We have to expand expectations in women.”

Changing the Sales Pitch

Women are as rare in computer science as they are in politics. Almost down to the exact percentile. And it may not be a coincidence. In fact, the percentage of women studying computer science has actually gone down—almost 50 percent—since the mid-1980s. Women now represent just one in 5 computer science undergraduates.

It is a puzzle that has long frustrated computer-science professors like Bo Brinkman at Miami University in Ohio. His department had tried all kinds of outreach efforts to entice more women to enroll—from running a summer computing camp for high-school girls to teaching Girl Scouts to code. But nothing had made much difference.

Then one day Brinkman heard about the research of a psychology professor named Amanda Diekman, also at Miami. Diekman had found that one reason girls and women avoid computer science is that they view the work as self-interested and isolating, rightly or wrongly. To put it simply, they don’t think computer scientists help make the world a better place. As a result, young women who like science tend to migrate to medicine instead.

“Humans are really good at telling stories about the way they’re behaving,” Diekman says. “Basically, we approach the things that feel good and avoid the things that give us discomfort in any way.” Men and women value communal goals—the idea that they are helping to make the world a better place. On average, women tend to value these goals slightly more, maybe because they are encouraged to do so from a very young age.

So in 2015, Brinkman and Diekman created a new computer-science program—one designed to explicitly appeal to communal values. The program, known as the Electronics and Computing Service Scholars, was advertised as a way for students “to work together with others to make a difference.” Students would live together in a dormitory, take courses focused on ways software can improve the community and volunteer with local elementary school coding clubs. When the first rounds of applications came in, they were anonymized to avoid bias in admissions decisions. In the end, a quarter of the accepted students were female and a quarter were underrepresented minorities—twice the ratio of both groups among engineering and computer science students at Miami University overall.

Inspired by the model, Miami’s engineering department has created a humanitarian engineering minor—a concept that also appeals to communally minded students and has been found to attract far more women than traditional engineering programs at universities across the country. So far, 71 percent of participating students are women.

No one has yet created a “humanitarian political science” department, but Diekman is working with her colleagues to extend the analogy to politics. As with engineering and computer science, most people assume that politics is not about helping make the world a better place. But these perceptions are malleable, it turns out.

A couple of years ago, Diekman and other colleagues ran a simple experiment: They asked 413 college students to read a paragraph about political careers. For one group, the reading emphasized the power of the job, focusing on politicians’ ability to influence others. The other text stressed the communal side, focusing on politicians’ ability to make a difference. Then the students rated how enjoyable they would find such a political career to be.

After reading the power-heavy text, men rated the career more enjoyable than women. But after reading the communally oriented paragraph, the gender gap disappeared. Men in this group rated the job to be just as enjoyable as the men in the power-centric group; but women’s ratings increased.

If political recruiters emphasized the way politicians can make the world a better place through collaboration and compromise, they would have more success in recruiting women, the authors concluded. They would also recruit more communally minded men, which could only be a good thing. Presumably, it would be even easier to make the argument for communally minded politicians than for communally minded computer scientists. Politicians are supposed to be communally oriented, by definition. The fact that we don’t see them that way doesn’t mean we can’t. “We perceive the roles as so stable,” Diekman says, “but there’s so much possibility for change.”