It’s no secret that women are hugely underrepresented in the world of Utah politics, and research done by a Brigham Young University professor may help explain why.
Jessica Preece began gathering data in 2013 in conjunction with the Utah County Republican Party, and found that common recruitment methods may be turning women off to running for political office.
When exposed to two different types of recruitment language, women at a training session held by the UCRP were four times as likely to say they would run for office when the language de-emphasized the competitiveness of running for office.
“When you use words that are laden with competitiveness, or connotations of competitiveness, women’s interest for running just plummeted,” said Preece, the political science professor at BYU who performed the study and research.
The more competitive language the women were exposed to included key verbs like debating, defending, challenging, and convincing, while the less competitive language included key verbs like talking, networking and negotiating.
When exposed to the competitive language, only 5 percent of the women said they would consider running for office. Responding to the neutral language, 20 percent of women said they would consider running for office.
Of men exposed to the two differing types of language, there was virtually no statistical difference. When exposed to the neutral language, 33 percent said they would consider running for office, compared with 31 percent who said they would when exposed to the competitive language.
Preece said that understanding how men and women react to different types of recruitment language could be a powerful tool, not just for Utah County Republicans, but for all political parties who are recruiting women to run for office.
“It’s important to not make it all about the competitive part, as you’re talking to prospective recruits,” Preece said. “Yes, you’re going to have to run a campaign and win an election, but you don’t necessarily have to think of it as a huge competition. You can think of it as a way of building networks, building support and finding partners to cooperate with to further your campaign and your interests.”
David Acheson, who was the UCRP chairman when Preece began the study and worked with her to do the surveys, said it’s the chair’s job to make sure that the best candidates are recruited for office, and that one of his priorities was to assure that there was representation by women who would be qualified candidates.
“It was my experience that it was difficult to recruit women to run for office as Republicans, as opposed to recruiting men,” Acheson said. “It seemed to me that there were always plenty of men who were willing to invest the time to run for office, while it was less so with women.”
Of the elected positions in Utah County, including city councils, mayors and county officials, only about 14 percent are filled by women, and of the 22 people representing Utah County in the state legislature, only two are women.
Women make up 49.5 percent of the county's population of 575,205, according to 2015 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Acheson said that, in talking with women he was recruiting to run for office, he noticed two main reasons that they usually told him no — lack of time and lack of desire to be in the limelight. He also said it’s important to take into account what Utah County women’s priorities often are.
“The reality and fact is, the priorities they have are oftentimes focused on their families, on their spouse and children, and that takes a higher priority than proactive civic engagement,” Acheson said.
Preece said she hopes that those already involved in politics will understand that that there are ways to get more women involved in politics, and it’s partly about how you talk about what politics entails.
Preece’s study also included findings that women are less likely than men to assume that the person recruiting them will help them throughout their campaign, and said recruiters need to be explicit in offering help, such as introducing them to a good campaign manager or donors.
“The truth is, party leaders are going to have to work harder to recruit the women than men,” Preece said.
Rethinking recruitment tactics may be one of the most important steps in bridging the gender gaps in politics.
Research suggests that, once female candidates decide to run, voters are relatively fair in voting for them against a male candidate.
“It’s not really the case that it’s voters or money that is causing women’s underrepresentation,” Preece said. “It’s happening much earlier, much further upstream in that they tend not to be recruited as much as men and when they are recruited, they don’t respond as positively as a man who is recruited.”
Casey Voeks, who followed Acheson in serving two years as the UCRP chair and also worked with Preece in gathering data for the research, said the information from Preece’s research would be a useful tool in recruiting the most qualified people to run for elected positions.
“Some women are very competitive,” said Voeks, who managed Congresswoman Mia Love’s 2012 campaign in its early stages. “But (this research) is something to keep in the back of your mind. If I’m talking to a person who doesn’t have any political experience, but is passionate about an issue, how do I talk them into (running for office)?”
There are three basic reasons why many people would like to see a larger sampling of women in politics, Preece said.
The first is plain old fairness, Preece said. The second is the emphasis that a woman might put on certain issues, as opposed to a man.
"There is some evidence that women who are in office bring up different issues, have different perspectives, and have different priorities than men who are in office," Preece said. "These differences are not huge. It's important to remember that for most politicians, their most important identity is partisanship."
The final reason, Preece said, is symbolic representation, or the idea that when people look at a representative body, it tells them a little bit about politics more generally.
"If that (elected) body is not representative of the population, then people start thinking, 'Well the system itself is not fair,' or perhaps, I don't see any women in this room, which perhaps sends the message that women don't belong in politics."