Mentoring the Next Generation of Women Candidates: A Field Experiment of State Legislators

Date01 July 2020
Published date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(4) 492 –505
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20906459
The 2016 U.S. presidential election focused national atten-
tion on women’s underrepresentation in politics. This spot-
light was in part due to Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy
as the first major party woman nominee for president, but
was also driven by Donald Trump’s degrading rhetoric
toward women (Fahrenthold, 2016). The 2016 presidential
campaigns played an important role in activating gender
attitudes to shape voting behavior (Bracic et al., 2019). The
backlash to 2016 sparked what was dubbed by the media as
the “Year of the Woman” for the record-breaking surge in
women in 2018 running for political office, further rising
the salience of the underrepresentation of women in gov-
ernment (Tackett, 2017).
Using a field experiment, also called an audit study, on
state legislators, this article explores what role gender of a pro-
spective political candidate plays in legislators’ decision to
respond to requests for advice or mentorships as well as how
this decision is shaped by a legislator’s own gender and party
identities. I argue that political elites are more willing to offer
their time and help to women in pursuit of elected office, espe-
cially when primed to think about gender representation in
politics, as they have witnessed the additional hurdles women
face in running for office. In addition, legislators’ gender and
party identities likely shape responsiveness to political aspi-
rants, such that women and Democrats would be increasingly
sympathetic and responsive in aiding a woman considering
running for political office. More than 450 emails were sent to
state legislators in three states from an individual seeking
advice on running for political office. Each email randomly
varied if it was sent from a man or woman, and additionally
varied if it indicated the individual was a Democrat,
Republican, or no party was specified. In addition, some
emails sent from the woman aspirant included an additional
prime on gender representation concerns in government.
Overall, I find that a woman seeking political advice is
more likely than a man to be offered help from state legisla-
tors. In addition, I find that legislators are more likely to
respond when the office seeker is of the same political party.
Priming consideration of gender representation in politics
did not increase overall responsiveness. However, it did sig-
nificantly increase the number of legislators willing to offer
gender-specific advice to aid women considering a run, such
as providing information on organizations that provide
resources to women candidates or advice on how to navigate
political life as a woman. I find the increased responsiveness
to the woman aspirant was not primarily driven by women
legislators but rather by Democrats. Democratic legislators
were more responsive to the woman aspirant than the man
regardless of the aspirant’s party, whereas Republicans were
906459APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20906459American Politics ResearchRhinehart
1The University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sarina Rhinehart, The Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies
Center, The University of Oklahoma, 630 Parrington Oval, Rm 101,
Norman, OK 73019, USA.
Mentoring the Next Generation of
Women Candidates: A Field
Experiment of State Legislators
Sarina Rhinehart1
This experiment sent state legislators an email from an individual seeking advice on running for office, varying the gender and
party of the sender. This project explores two inquiries—who the legislators choose to respond to and how the legislators’
own gender and partisan identities shape that decision. I theorize that women in politics is a salient issue for legislators;
therefore, they will be more willing to advise politically ambitious women. Overall, I find that legislators are more willing
to offer help when the aspirant is a woman and of the same party. When primed to further consider women in politics,
legislators are more likely to offer gender-specific advice. Democrats rather than women legislators drive this heightened
responsiveness to the woman aspirant. These findings highlight what role public officials can play in closing the candidate
gender gap, and how legislators’ multiple identities intersect and frame their decisions to aid political aspirants.
field experiment, audit study, state legislatures, gender and politics, candidate recruitment

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