Would You Be the President of the United States?
The Chilling Effect of Gender on Presidential Ambition
In the spring of 2016, I was studying abroad in London, England, and discussing the state of American politics with two fellow American students, both women. Our home country was in the midst of a historic presidential campaign, and we were discussing political ambition. The idea of becoming president arose, and both women expressed that given the chance, they would turn down the opportunity to become the President of the United States.
This surprised me -- surely, everyone would want to be the President. But the reaction of my peers surprised me, and one of them attributed my ardent desire and their disinterest to our respective genders. I was intrigued. I conceded that it was probably likely that men would desire the presidency more often than women, but I did not anticipate a significant difference. More to the point, however, it did not occur to me that gender might play any role until it was pointed out to me.
So, for fun and the sake of knowledge, I resolved to ask my peers, and to find out whether or not gender played a role in presidential ambition.
My starting position, my implicit, unquestioned belief, was that the vast majority of individuals would want to be the President of the United States, and moreover, that gender played no role in that decision. The alternative hypothesis, then, was offered by my friend: men are more likely than women to agree to be the president.
I decided to go one step further: surely, even if men sought the presidency more often than women, we could stipulate that among the politically hopeful, the rates were even, i.e. that among our peers who studied politically-relevant topics, any gender gap would disappear. I decided to track undergraduate majors as well.
I surveyed 374 people between the ages of 18 and 25. The survey was not truly random, since participants had to opt-in to the survey instead of being randomly selected, and the population exposed to the opt-in was limited to people I knew personally. However, the question originally arose as one regarding my peers, so this is within the parameters of the question.
Since the alternative hypothesis stipulates that men are more likely, as a result of their gender and the resulting societal effects, to seek the presidency, I grouped gender into two categories: ‘male’ and ‘nonmale’, in order to account for nonbinary respondents while maintaining simplicity in the data.
The survey asked about major, which I then coded into ‘political’ and ‘nonpolitical’. ‘Political’ majors include: American studies, international relations, journalism, communications, economics, law, political science, history, anthropology etc. ‘Non-political’ majors include: computer science, biology, physics, chemistry, cognitive brain sciences, psychology, music, film, math, engineering, musical theater, etc.
I created frequency tables from the data in order to calculate p-values and phi coefficients.
In a survey of 374 millennials, only 28%* reported a willingness to perform the duties of President of the United States. Moreover, this stated desire was not evenly distributed across gender or education. 42%* of men agreed to take over as commander in chief, compared to only 16%* of women, making up a 26% difference by gender alone.
This gender gap in presidential ambition outweighs the gap between millennials with traditionally ‘political’ academic pursuits (social sciences, history, law, etc) and those with ‘non-political’ academic preferences. Politically-minded students took the job at a rate of 41%*, while their apolitical peers only stepped into the role 21%* of the time -- a smaller spread than the gender gap.
The most interesting results are seen when we look at the intersections of these identities. Among the politically-minded, men said yes to the Oval 51%** of the time, receiving a 9-point boost from their education, whereas a political education among women provided additional explanatory power with a 14-point difference, bringing the rate among nonmales up from 16% to 30%**. On the flip side, across the board we see that those pursuing ‘non-political’ studies are less likely than their peers to pursue the presidency. Here, though, the effect seems to be the even: both males and nonmales drop only 5 points when they study ‘non-political’ subjects, (37%* among males, 11%* among nonmales) although the effect is proportionally larger for women, given how few wanted the job in the first place.
All my data and statistical work can be viewed here. I welcome any and all critique on my methodology.
Given the levels of statistical significance represented in the data, we must reject the null hypotheses, and accept the alternatives. Being male does indeed correlate to higher rates of presidential ambition. We can see that being a man is comparable to a politically-focused education when it comes to predicting whether an individual is likely to be willing to become the President. Moreover, women see a greater boost to their rates of presidential ambition when they study ‘political’ topics. Either women are better at selecting areas of study based on career preference, women are driven to politics by their education to a greater degree than men, or men see themselves as presidential regardless of academic background.
But, while these results are all highly statistically significant, their explanatory power is limited. Neither gender nor education can predict whether someone will want to be president all or even most of the time -- ie, presidential ambition is likely better explained, on the whole, by some other factor -- but with phi coefficients uniformly between .20 and .30, we can attribute a mild relationship between gender, educational focus, and whether or not one would be the President of the United States.
Thoughts and questions:
The most common reason behind not wanting to be president was the stress of the job. This included anticipation of judgment, the demanding nature of the presidency, the weight of the decisions, and the lack of privacy. The second most common, and related, reason was the fear of making a mistake. Respondents often referred to ‘screwing up’ or ‘driving the country into the ground’. Another common theme was anxiety about the apparent inability to succeed at the job, and the anticipation of opprobrium regardless of one’s actions.
Extensive research has been done with regards to why women are apparently less politically ambitious than men are. Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless, of the Brookings Institute, stipulate that “Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are “qualified” to run for office. And they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.” Laurel Elder, professor of women’s and gender studies at Hartwick College, posits “gender role socialization, a lack of political confidence, family responsibilities and the relatively few numbers of visible women role models in politics” as the driving forces behind this trend. Professors David E. Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht of the University of Notre Dame point again to a paucity of female political role models, though less as a function of their socializing benefits, and more as a result of the conversations they inspire at home.
This trend is unsurprising, and tracks with what we know about gender representation in leadership positions. However, by shedding light on such imbalances, taking time to ask about their root causes, and seeking to mitigate them, we can shed light on and, in time, reverse a tendency that keeps half our population out of power.
* Signifies statistical significance at the 99.9% confidence level (p<.001)
** Signifies statistical significance at the 98% confidence level (p<.02)