Blaming Women or Blaming the System? Public Perceptions of Women’s Underrepresentation in Elected Office

Date01 September 2018
AuthorMichael Hansen,Kathleen Dolan
Published date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18x93tyKWDsXLK/input 755972PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918755972Political Research QuarterlyDolan and Hansen
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 668 –680
Blaming Women or Blaming the
© 2018 University of Utah
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System? Public Perceptions of Women’s
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918755972
Underrepresentation in Elected Office
Kathleen Dolan1 and Michael Hansen2
While scholars understand some of the reasons for the underrepresentation of women in elected office in the United
States, we know almost nothing about what the public sees as the explanation for this reality. We also know relatively
little about the degree to which people see women’s underrepresentation as a problem. Drawing on blame attribution
theories, we examine whether people believe that there are systematic or individual explanations for the number of
women in elected office. As blame explanations often influence positions on outcomes, we also test whether these
explanations are related to people’s attitudes toward women in office and their vote choice behaviors in U.S. House
races with women candidates present. Using data from a 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES)
survey, we find differences among people in the blame explanations they make. These explanations are significantly
related to attitudes about women in office but do not influence vote choice decisions when women run for office.
gender, elections and voting behavior, American politics, women and politics
A critical question in examining why there are so few
Explanations for Women’s
women in elected office in the United States is what
might explain this situation. Women, who comprise 51
percent of the U.S. population and continue to make sig-
Over the years, scholars of women and politics have iden-
nificant strides in education, occupational, and economic
tified several realities of social and political life that help
attainment, have yet to break through in proportionate
account for the fact that women in the United States com-
numbers in politics. Scholars have examined this ques-
prise about 20 to 25 percent of elected officeholders,
tion from all angles, focusing on the number of women
from local to national office (Center for American Women
candidates, the relationship of women candidates to polit-
and Politics 2017). These explanations tend to break
ical parties, reactions from voters, and the dynamics of
down into two categories—elements of the lives of
campaigns (Dittmar 2015; Dolan 2014; Lawless and Fox
women that can limit their participation and aspects of
2010; Sanbonmatsu 2006). But one thing we do not really
our political system that inhibit their opportunities, or
understand is what members of the public think about the
what some scholars refer to as “supply” and “demand”
situation. We know that people take a range of positions
explanations (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013; Holman
on whether politics is appropriate for women, whether
and Schneider 2017).
there should be more women in elected office, and even
Individual-level, or supply, explanations focus on
whether our country would be governed better with more
aspects of women and women’s lives, such as their family
women in positions of power (Dolan 2014; Pew Research
status or career choices, that make them less likely to run
Center 2008). And yet we have very little information on
for office. There has been significant research that dem-
what the average voter sees as the reason for women’s
onstrates women have lower levels of political ambition
underrepresentation. Knowing more about public percep-
tions of the reasons for women’s absence from elected
1University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
office could be important to understanding their attitudes
2Lunds Universitet, Sweden
and behaviors toward women candidates for office, to the
Corresponding Author:
environment these attitudes create for women candidates,
Kathleen Dolan, Department of Political Science, University of
and even to potential policy or institutional solutions to
Wisconsin–Milwaukee, P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201, USA.
change this situation.

Dolan and Hansen
than men and devalue their own credentials for candidacy
There are two general types of causal attributions that
more easily than do men (Fox and Lawless 2011; Holman
people make: internal/dispositional and external/environ-
and Schneider 2017; Lawless and Fox 2010). Other work
mental. An internal attribution focuses on the character,
finds that women’s family roles and the “second shift”
ability, personality, or disposition of individuals as the prox-
can limit their ability to combine a candidacy with family
imate cause of some situation or behavior, while an external
life or that their career choices place them outside of the
attribution involves a judgment that the environment, social
traditional occupations from which successful candidates
context, or situational influence is a cause of the situation.
emerge (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 1997; Elder 2004,
People’s responses to observed behaviors often hinge on
but see Fox and Lawless 2014).
whether they see individual or situational causes as primary
Demand explanations tend to examine the ways ele-
(Fiske and Taylor 1991). These centers of blame generally
ments of our political system organize to limit women’s
correspond to the “supply” or individual and “demand” or
opportunities to run for office. Here, political parties and
systemic explanations for women’s underrepresentation
other political elites fail to see women as viable candi-
made by scholarly work on the subject.
dates, are less likely to recruit them to run, and provide
Causal attributions are thought to be important in the
fewer resources or “winnable” opportunities than they
study of public opinion because decisions about who to
provide to men (Bejarano 2013; Carroll 1994; Crowder-
credit or blame for a situation are important for deter-
Meyer2013; Fox and Lawless 2011; Niven 1998; mining responsibility of government actors and elected
Sanbonmatsu 2006).
officials, as well as for shaping policy preferences.
Political scientists have drawn on blame attribution the-
Blame Attributions and the
ory to examine evaluations of a range of political issues.
Public’s Evaluation of Women’s
Joslyn and Haider-Markel (2016), Haider-Markel and
Joslyn (2008), and Whitehead (2014) have examined
how attributions about the causes of homosexuality are
Although there is ample academic work on explanations
related to stereotypic judgments about gays and lesbi-
for women’s underrepresentation in office, we know
ans, support for gay rights, and support for same-sex
much less about how the voting public views this situa-
marriage. Gomez and Wilson have applied blame attri-
tion. Understanding how people evaluate this reality is
bution theory to explanations of symbolic racism and
important. Messages about women and women’s place
evaluations of government actors during Hurricane
in political life come from many sources—the media,
Katrina (Gomez and Wilson 2006, 2008). Other scholars
academics, political parties—and can saturate our elec-
have used this framework to examine attitudes toward
tions, which can have an impact on how voters perceive
the poor, gun control policies, and health care policies
women candidates (Falk 2010; Greenlee, Holman and
(Cozzarelli, Wilkinson and Tagler 2001; Gollust and
VanSickle-Ward 2016). Public-opinion polls demon-
Lynch 2011; Haider-Markel and Joslyn 2001; Joslyn
strate that Americans still see discrimination against
and Haider-Markel 2013).
women in our society, believe that it is easier for men to
Beyond public support for policies, attributions have
get elected to office than women, and see both individ-
been shown to be important in influencing voting behav-
ual- and system-level explanations for women’s status
ior. While much of this literature focuses on evaluations
(Cohn and Livingston 2016; NORC 2016; Pew Research
of the economy, the larger dynamics at play can be
Center 2008). But we still lack a theoretically driven
instructive for other domains of concerns. Arceneaux
understanding of how people explain women’s dramatic
(2003) challenged the notion that Americans facing eco-
nomic adversity are less likely to vote, finding that blame
A place to begin such an examination is with the litera-
attributions can be a motivator of turnout. Using American
ture on blame attribution. This work suggests that people
National Election Studies (ANES) data, he finds that less
like to be able to explain situations, that they seek out
well-off people who blame the government for economic
explanations as a way of making sense of the world
conditions are more likely to turn out to vote than those
around them. This body of work suggests that people
who do not make blame attributions. Other research on
strive to understand, simplify, and control their environ-
economic evaluations finds that blame attributions can
ments and that part of this process involves understand-
shape the direction of voting as well. Aldrich et al. 2014
ing the causes of some situation, event, or behavior
find that patterns of blaming Democrats in...

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