Intimidating exemplars: the deterrent effect of excellent women in office
It is well known that there are far fewer women than men serving in U.S. politics and elective office, and a great deal of research has been done to uncover the reason why. One factor articulated by Lawless and Fox is the way women perceive their qualifications to run for office, something they attribute to traditional gender socialization. I posit a different explanation—Intimidating Exemplars Theory. Drawing on concepts from Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, I hypothesize that when considering a run for office, potential female candidates compare themselves to the women already in office. Since current female public officials have to be more highly qualified to reach office than men do, potential female candidates may compare themselves to these current officeholders and determine that they do not have the qualifications necessary to run. Results from a survey of elected officials in Iowa and of Iowa State University students support this theory. Female elected officials do name higher achieving female politicians as exemplars and emphasize their background/experience more than they did for male exemplars. Implications of this theory for political science and women candidates are also discussed.