What’s the hold-up? Women’s Delayed Entry into Political Office
Just one week after 19 new women were elected to the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference with the current caucus of Democratic women members to announce that she would once again put her name forward for the Democrat’s top spot in the House. Raising some eyebrows and eliciting heckles from the cadre of women on the stage, journalist Luke Russert suggested that her decision to stay on posed obstacles to leadership for younger members. After noting that the same question is never asked of men in leadership, the 72 year-old mother of five and grandmother of eight pointed to the gendered dimension of members’ ages:
"I knew that my male colleagues...had a jump on me because they didn't have children to stay home [with]. …You got to take off about 14 years from me because I was home raising a family."
Pelosi’s comments raise important questions to consider for today’s class of women officeholders. As has been historically true, do women enter office at later ages than their male counterparts? Are they more likely to wait until their children are older to run and serve? And, finally, what does this mean for increasing women’s representation? Let’s take a look at the newly sworn-in 113th House of Representatives. The average age of all members is about 56 years old, but the key statistic of interest for these questions is the average age at which members took office. In the 113th, the average age of taking office is just over 47 years old, but there is a significant difference between male and female members: women’s average age of entering the House is 50.2 years old and men average 46.7 years old upon taking their congressional oath of office. While not the 14-year expanse cited by Pelosi, this data demonstrates that women continue to enter office – in this case, congressional office – later than their male colleagues, which has implications for institutional seniority and leadership posts. When we include all members into these calculations, some of the most gender-significant age divides – those tied to childbearing and childrearing – may be disguised. Another cut at the congressional membership shows that about 19% of female members in the 113th took office at age 40 or under, compared to 25% of male members. Of the 83 freshman members (64 male, 19 female), 32 men and only 1 woman currently have children under age 18. Put more clearly, half of the new male members come to Washington, DC while their children are still at home and all but one of the new female members either have no children or have adult children. In survey responses, female state legislators are significantly more likely than their male colleagues to say that their decision to run for office was influenced by their children being “old enough.” Not only does this finding have implications for women who start their political career in the state legislatures before heading to Congress, but it also echoes Leader Pelosi’s sentiment regarding the unique responsibilities and considerations that women confront in making the decision to enter public office. Children and families are not the sole source of delay for women. Women’s motivations for office are more likely to emerge from issue involvement over time rather than a long-time desire to hold office, which is more common among men. Moreover, women continue to need greater encouragement to run for office, and often feel the need to gather greater experience and/or training than their male peers. Regardless of the cause for delay, women’s later entry into office at both the state legislative and congressional levels can have real implications for women’s institutional power, political advancement, and ambition and/or ability to seek higher office. At her November press conference, Leader Pelosi expressed hope for the next generation of women leaders, saying, “I want women to be here in greater numbers at an earlier age so that their seniority would start to count much sooner.” To meet that desire, more will need to be done to both encourage and enable young women to run for office. A nudge from the first female Speaker of the House is probably not a bad place to start.