Why aren’t there more women in executive office?
In 2018, a record number of women were elected to Congress, but it’s a different story when you look at governorships. Today, only nine women serve as governor, tying a previous record first set in 2004.
Twenty states have never had a woman governor, whereas only one state has yet to send a woman to Congress. The numbers are even more stark when it comes to women of color and LGBTQ women: only two states have ever elected a woman of color governor, and there has only been one openly LGBTQ woman elected governor.
When running for executive office, women face obstacles that men running simply do not. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has consistently found that voters have been more comfortable seeing women serve as members of a legislature than they have been electing them to executive offices—positions where they will have sole decision-making authority.
This research, which asks about hypothetical Asian Pacific Islander American, Black, Latina, lesbian and white women candidates of the two major political parties, comprehensively examines what it takes for a woman to prove to voters she is ready to serve in executive office. For context, it also includes some of the lessons learned from interviews with 2018 gubernatorial candidates and their campaign staffs.
- The idea that women candidates aren’t as electable as their male counterparts is a myth, but that doesn’t mean men and women are measured with the same yardstick on the campaign trail. Across candidate profiles tested, all of the hypothetical women candidates win or tie their head-to-head ballots against a straight white man of the opposite party. However, in our focus groups, voters acknowledge that women are held to different and higher standards when it comes to qualifications and likeability, but many still actively participate in upholding those double standards.
- Voters want women candidates for governor to be action-oriented, and punish candidates who violate their trust. No matter the hypothetical woman candidate tested, the top traits voters identify as important for electability at the executive office level are “can handle a crisis” and “gets results.” It is more difficult for candidates to overcome an ethical infraction than a mistake in a plan or on the campaign trail, with our focus group participants sharing that an ethical violation makes them angry and feeds into their negative feelings about politicians.
- Voters are more willing to question electability based on sexual orientation than on race or ethnicity, but it’s clear that race and ethnicity still play a role in how voters see a candidate. A few focus group participants are concerned that a lesbian candidate would focus too much on LGBTQ issues or would not be able to compete electorally because some people would not vote for her based on her sexual orientation. While most focus group participants say a candidate’s race or ethnicity does not impact how qualified they seem, some push back on discussing the race or ethnicity of the candidate, asking a variation of the question, “Why do we need to know that?”
Memo toplines are available here.