Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Gender, risk assessment, and political ambition

  • Jennie Sweet-Cushman (a1)

In the United States, women have long held the right to vote and can participate fully in the political process, and yet they are underrepresented at all levels of elected office. Worldwide, men’s dominance in the realm of politics has also been the norm. To date, scholars have focused on supply-side and demand-side explanations of women’s underrepresentation but differences in how men and women assess electoral risk (the risk involved in seeking political office) are not fully explained. To fill this gap, I explore how evolutionary theory offers insights into gendered differences in political ambition and the evaluation of electoral risk. Using the framework of life-history theory, I hypothesize that both cognitive and environmental factors in human evolution, particularly as they relate to sexual selection and social roles, have shaped the psychology of ambition in gendered ways affecting contemporary politics. Cognitive risk-assessment mechanisms evolving in the hominid line came to be expressed differently in females and males, in women and men. These gendered expressions plausibly reflect differentiable environmental pressures in the past and may help explain behaviors in and barriers to women’s electoral political activity in the present. If so, then the success of efforts to increase such activity — or, regressively, to suppress it — may be better understood.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Gender, risk assessment, and political ambition
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Gender, risk assessment, and political ambition
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Gender, risk assessment, and political ambition
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Correspondence: Jennie Sweet-Cushman, Department of History, Political Science, and International Studies, Chatham University, 0 Woodland Road, Pittsburgh, PA  15232. Email:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

J. L. Lawless  and R. L. Fox , It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

L. T. Liesen , “Women, behavior, and evolution: Understanding the debate between feminist evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists,” Politics and the Life Sciences , 2007, 26(1): 5170.

P. Norris  and J. Lovenduski , “‘If only more candidates came forward’: Supply-side explanations of candidate selection in Britain,” British Journal of Political Science , 1993, 23(3): 373408.

S. J. Carroll , “The personal is political: The intersection and private lives and public roles among women and men in elective and appointive office,” Women and Politics , 1989, 9(2): 5167.

S. J. Carroll  and K. Sanbonmatsu , More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

S. A. Fulton , C. D. Maestas , L. S. Maisel , and W. J. Stone , “The sense of a woman: Gender, ambition, and the decision to run for Congress,” Political Research Quarterly , 2006, 59(2): 235248, doi:10.1177/106591290605900206.

S. Thomas , “The personal is the political: Antecedents of gendered choices of elected representatives,” Sex Roles , 2002, 47(7–8): 343353.

D. L. Dodson , “Change and continuity in the relationship between private responsibilities and public office holding: The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Policy Studies Journal , 1997, 25(4): 569584, doi:10.1111/j.1541-0072.1997.tb00042.x.

M. M. Lee , “Why few women hold public office: Democracy and sexual roles,” Political Science Quarterly , 1976, 91(2): 297314, doi:10.2307/2148414.

V. Sapiro , “Private costs of public commitments or public costs of private commitments? Family roles versus political ambition,” American Journal of Political Science , 1982, 26(2): 265279, doi:10.2307/2111039.

D. E. Campbell  and C. Wolbrecht , “See Jane run: Women politicians as role models for adolescents,” Journal of Politics , 2009, 68(2): 233247.

J. Mansbridge , “Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? A contingent ‘yes’,” Journal of Politics , 1999, 61(3): 628657.

B. J. Burt-Way  and R. M. Kelly , “Gender and sustaining political ambition: A study of Arizona elected officials,” Western Political Quarterly , 1992, 45(1): 1125.

R. Silbermann , “Gender roles, work-life balance, and running for office,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science , 2015, 10(2): 123153.

V. Sapiro , “If US Senator Baker were a woman: An experimental study of candidate images,” Political Psychology , 1981, 3(1–2): 6183.

J. H. Black  and L. Erickson , “Women candidates and voter bias: Do women politicians need to be better? Electoral Studies , 2003, 22(1): 81100, doi:10.1016/S0261-3794(01)00028-2.

R. Darcy  and J. R. Choike , “A formal analysis of legislative turnover: Women candidates and legislative representation,” American Journal of Political Science , 1986, 30(1): 237255.

R. Darcy  and S. S. Schramm , “When women run against men,” Public Opinion Quarterly , 1977, 41(1): 112, doi:10.1086/268347.

K. Dolan , “Voting for women in the ‘Year of the Woman’,” American Journal of Political Science , 1998, 42(1): 272293, doi:10.2307/2991756.

R. L. Fox  and J. L. Lawless , “Gendered perceptions and political candidacies: A central barrier to women’s equality in electoral politics,” American Journal of Political Science , 2010, 55(1): 5973, doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00484.x.

J. L. Lawless  and K. Pearson , “The primary reason for women’s underrrepresentation? Reevaluating the conventional wisdom,” Journal of Politics , 2008, 70(1): 6782.

S. Thompson  and J. Steckenrider , “The relative irrelevance of candidate sex,” Women and Politics , 1997, 17(4): 7192, doi:10.1300/J014v17n04_04.

L. Huddy  and N. Terkildsen , “Gender stereotypes and the perception of male and female candidates,” American Journal of Political Science , 1993, 37(1): 119147, doi:10.2307/2111526.

J. W. Koch , “Do citizens apply gender stereotypes to infer candidates’ ideological orientations? Journal of Politics , 2000, 62(2): 414429.

J. L. Lawless , “Women, war, and winning elections: Gender stereotyping in the post-September 11th era,” Political Research Quarterly , 2004, 57(3): 479490.

M. L. McDermott , “Voting cues in low-information elections: Candidate gender as a social information variable in contemporary United States elections,” American Journal of Political Science , 1997, 41(1): 270283.

M. L. McDermott , “Race and gender cues in low-information elections,” Political Research Quarterly , 1998, 51(4): 895918.

K. Sanbonmatsu , “Gender stereotypes and vote choice,” American Journal of Political Science , 2002, 46(2): 2034.

N. M. Bauer , “Emotional, sensitive, and unfit for office? Gender stereotype activation and support female candidates,” Political Psychology , 2015, 36(6): 691708.

M. Crowder-Meyer , S. K. Gadarian , and J. Trounstine , “Electoral institutions, gender stereotypes, and women’s local representation,” Politics, Groups, and Identities , 2015, 3(2): 318334.

J. Devitt , “Framing gender on the campaign trail: Female gubernatorial candidates and the press,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly , 2002, 79(2): 445463, doi:10.1177/107769900207900212.

K. F. Kahn , “Does gender make a difference? An experimental examination of sex stereotypes and press patterns in statewide campaigns,” American Journal of Political Science , 1994, 38(1): 162195, doi:10.2307/2111340.

K. F. Kahn  and E. N. Goldenberg , “Women candidates in the news: An examination of gender differences in the US Senate Campaign coverage,” Public Opinion Quarterly , 1991, 55(2): 180199, doi:10.1086/269251.

P. Norris  and J. Lovenduski , Political Recruitment: Gender, Race and Class in the British Parliament (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

D. Niven , “Party elites and women candidates: The shape of bias,” Women and Politics , 1998, 19(2): 5780.

P. M. Siavelis  and S. Morgenstern , “Candidate recruitment and selection in Latin America: A framework for analysis,” Latin American Politics and Society , 2008, 50(4): 2758.

The Impact of Gender Quotas, S. Franceschet , M. L. Krook , and J. M. Piscopo , eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

J. Sidanius , F. Pratto , and L. Bobo , “Social dominance orientation and the political psychology of gender: A case of invariance? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 1994, 67(6): 998.

M. C. Schneider , M. R. Holman , A. B. Diekman , and T. McAndrew , “Power, conflict, and community: How gendered views of political power influence women’s political ambition,” Political Psychology , 2016, 37(4): 515531.

R. J. Hannagan , “Gendered political behavior: A Darwinian feminist approach,” Sex Roles , 2008, 59(7–8): 465475, doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9417-3.

K. Kanthak  and J. Woon , “Women don’t run? Election aversion and candidate entry,” American Journal of Political Science , 2015, 59(3): 595612.

J. Preece  and O. Stoddard , “Why women don’t run: Experimental evidence on gender differences in political competition aversion,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization , 2015, 117: 296308.

D. W. Rohde , “Risk-bearing and progressive ambition: The case of members of the United States House of Representatives,” American Journal of Political Science , 1979, 23(1): 126, doi:10.2307/2110769.

T. Bledsoe  and M. Herring , “Victims of circumstances: Women in pursuit of political office,” American Political Science Review , 1990, 84(1): 213223, doi:10.2307/1963638.

B. Rohrmann  and O. Renn , “Risk perception research,” in Cross-Cultural Risk Perception, vol. 13 (Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag, 2000), pp. 1153.

J. P. Byrnes , D. C. Miller , and W. D. Schafer , “Gender differences in risk taking: A meta-analysis,” Psychological Bulletin , 1999, 125(3): 367383, doi:10.1037/0033-2909.125.3.367.

E. U. Weber , A. R. Blais , and N. E. Betz , “A domain-specific risk-attitude scale: Measuring risk perceptions and risk behaviors,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making , 2002, 15(4): 263290, doi:10.1002/bdm.414.

I. Waldron , C. Mccloskey , and I. Earle , “Trends in gender differences in accidents mortality: Relationships to changing gender roles and other societal trends,” Demographic Research , 2005, 13(17): 415454.

M. B. Oliver  and J. S. Hyde , “Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis,” Psychological Bulletin , 1993, 114(1): 29, doi:10.1037/0033-2909.114.1.29.

E. Garbarino  and M. Strahilevitz , “Gender differences in the perceived risk of buying online and the effects of receiving a site recommendation,” Journal of Business Research , 2004, 57(7): 768775, doi:10.1016/S0148-2963(02)00363-6.

N. Rhodes  and K. Pivik , “Age and gender differences in risky driving: The roles of positive affect and risk perception,” Accident Analysis and Prevention , 2011, 43(3): 923931, doi:10.1016/j.aap.2010.11.015.

L. Sigelman , “The coevolution of American political science and the American Political Science Review,” American Political Science Review , 2006, 100(4): 463, doi:10.1017/S0003055406062319.

J. H. Fowler , L. A. Baker , and C. T. Dawes , “Genetic variation in political participation,” American Political Science Review , 2008, 102(2): 233248, doi:10.1017/S0003055408080209.

P. Sturgis , S. Read , P. K. Hatemi , G. Zhu , T. Trull , M. J. Wright , and N. G. Martin , “A genetic basis for social trust? Political Behavior , 2010, 32(2): 205230, doi:10.1007/s11109-009-9101-5.

D. Madsen , “A biochemical property relating to power seeking in humans,” American Political Science Review , 1985, 79(2): 448457, doi:10.2307/1956659.

M. J. Raleigh , G. L. Brammer , A. Yuwiler , J. W. Flannery , M. T. McGuire , and E. Geller , “Serotonergic influences on the social behavior of vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus) ,” Experimental Neurology , 1980, 68(2): 322334.

M. J. Raleigh  and M. T. McGuire , “Bidirectional relationships between tryptophan and social behavior in vervet monkeys,” in Kynurenine and Serotonin Pathways: Progress in Tryptophan Research, Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, vol. 294, R. Schwarcz , S. N. Young , and R. R. Brown , eds. (New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1991), pp. 289298.

M. J. Raleigh , M. T. McGuire , G. L. Brammer , and A. Yuwiler , “Social and environmental influences on blood serotonin concentrations in monkeys,” Archives of General Psychiatry , 1984, 41(4): 405410.

M. J. Raleigh , M. T. McGuire , G. L. Brammer , D. B. Pollack , and A. Yuwiler , “Serotonergic mechanisms promote dominance acquisition in adult male vervet monkeys,” Brain Research , 1991, 559(2): 181190.

H. D. Steklis , M. J. Raleigh , A. S. Kling , and K. Tachiki , “Biochemical and hormonal correlates of dominance and social behavior in all-male groups of squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) ,” American Journal of Primatology , 1986, 11(2): 133145.

D. Madsen , “Power seekers are different: Further biochemical evidence,” American Political Science Review , 1986, 80(1): 261269, doi:10.2307/1957094.

L. J. Eaves  and P. K. Hatemi , “Transmission of attitudes toward abortion and gay rights: Effects of genes, social learning and mate selection,” Behavior Genetics , 2008, 38(3): 247256.

P. K. Hatemi , S. E. Medland , K. I. Morley , A. C. Heath , and N. G. Martin , “The genetics of voting: An Australian twin study,” Behavior Genetics , 2007, 37(3): 435448.

R. McDermott , Political Psychology in International Relations (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).

P. K. Hatemi , K. Smith , J. R. Alford , N. G. Martin , and J. R. Hibbing , “The genetic and environmental foundations of political, psychological, social, and economic behaviors: a panel study of twins and families,” Twin Research and Human Genetics , 2015, 18(3): 243255.

R. McDermott , J. H. Fowler , and O. Smirnov , “On the evolutionary origin of prospect theory preferences,” Journal of Politics , 2008, 70(2): 335350.

D. Kahneman  and A. Tversky , “Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk,” Econometrica , 1979, 47(2): 263291.

J. N. Druckman , “On the limits of framing effects: Who can frame? Journal of Politics , 2001, 63(4): 10411066.

R. R. Lau  and D. P. Redlawsk , “Advantages and disadvantages of cognitive heuristics in political decision making,” American Journal of Political Science , 2001, 45(4): 951971.

J. Mercer , “Prospect theory and political science,” Annual Review of Political Science , 2005, 8: 121, doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.8.082103.104911.

J. W. Patty , “Loss aversion, presidential responsibility, and midterm congressional elections,” Electoral Studies , 2006, 25(2): 227247.

G. A. Quattrone  and A. Tversky , “Contrasting rational and psychological analyses of political choice,” American Political Science Review , 1988, 82(3): 719736.

W. C. McDaniel  and F. Sistrunk , “Management dilemmas and decisions impact of framing and anticipated responses,” Journal of Conflict Resolution , 1991, 35(1): 2142.

K. Weyland , “Risk taking in Latin American economic restructuring: Lessons from prospect theory,” International Studies Quarterly , 1996, 40: 185207.

J. D. Berejikian , “A cognitive theory of deterrence,” Journal of Peace Research , 2002, 39(2): 165183, doi:10.1177/0022343302039002002.

M. M. Faber , J. L. Proops , and R. Manstetten , Evolution, Time, Production and the Environment (Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag, 1990).

R. Jervis , “Leadership, post-Cold War politics, and psychology,” Political Psychology , 1994, 15(4): 769777, doi:10.2307/3791635.

R. Jervis , “The implications of prospect theory for human nature and values,” Political Psychology , 2004, 25(2): 163176.

J. S. Levy , “Learning and foreign policy: Sweeping a conceptual minefield,” International Organization , 1994, 48(2): 279312.

J. S. Levy , “Prospect theory, rational choice, and international relations,” International Studies Quarterly , 1997, 41(1): 87112, doi:10.1111/0020-8833.00034.

N. Fagley  and P. M. Miller , “The effect of framing on choice interactions with risk-taking propensity, cognitive style, and sex,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 1990, 16(3): 496510, doi:10.1177/0146167290163008.

N. S. Fagley  and P. M. Miller , “Framing effects and arenas of choice: Your money or your life? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes , 1997, 71(3): 355373, doi:10.1006/obhd.1997.2725.

S. C. Stearns , “The evolution of life history traits: A critique of the theory and a review of the data,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics , 1977, 8: 145171.

C. Darwin , The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1871).

W. M. Schaffer , “The application of optimal control theory to the general life history problem,” American Naturalist , 1983, 121(3): 418431.

V. Griskevicius , J. M. Tybur , A. W. Delton , and T. E. Robertson , “The influence of mortality and socioeconomic status on risk and delayed rewards: A life history theory approach,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 2011, 100(6): 1015.

D. M. Buss , “Evolutionary personality psychology,” Annual Review of Psychology , 1991, 42(1): 459491,

T. R. Malthus , The First Essay (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959).

D. Buss , “The evolution of human intrasexual competition: Tactics of mate attraction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 1988, 54(4): 616, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.54.4.616.

P. K. Hatemi  and R. McDermott , “Evolution as a theory for political behavior,” in Man Is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics, P. Hatemi  and R. McDermott , eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

C. Boehm , “Impact of the human egalitarian syndrome on Darwinian selection mechanics,” American Naturalist , 1997b, 150(Supplement 1): S100S121, doi:10.1086/286052.

R. Bird , “Cooperation and conflict: The behavioral ecology of the sexual division of labor,” Evolutionary Anthropology Issues, News, and Reviews , 1999, 8(2): 6575, doi:10.1002/1520-6505.

F. W. Marlowe , “Hunting and gathering the human sexual division of foraging labor,” Cross-Cultural Research , 2007, 41(2): 170195, doi:10.1177/1069397106297529.

M. M. Lee , “Why few women hold public office: Democracy and sexual roles,” Political Science Quarterly , 1976, 91(2): 297314, doi:10.2307/2148414.

W. Irons , “Monogamy, contraception and the cultural and reproductive success hypothesis,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences , 1993, 16(2): 295296, doi:10.1017/s0140525x00030089.

J. Sell , W. I. Griffith , and R. K. Wilson , “Are women more cooperative than men in social dilemmas? Social Psychology Quarterly , 1993, 56(3): 211222, doi:10.2307/2786779.

W. D. Hamilton , “The genetical evolution of social behaviour. II,” Journal of Theoretical Biology , 1964, 7(1): 1752, doi:10.1016/0022-5193(64)90039-6.

S. B. Hrdy , Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999).

S. M. Essock-Vitale , “The reproductive success of wealthy Americans,” Ethology and Sociobiology , 1984, 5(1): 4549, doi:10.1016/0162-3095(84)90034-7.

P. Sapienza , L. Zingales , and D. Maestripieri , “Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 2009, 106(36): 1526815273, doi:10.1073/pnas.0907352106.

D. Schmitt , T. Shackelford , and D. Buss , “Are men really more ‘oriented’ toward short-term mating than women? A critical review of theory and research,” Psychology, Evolution, and Gender , 2001, 3(3): 211239, doi:10.1080/14616660110119331.

D. M. Buss  and D. P. Schmitt , “Evolutionary psychology and feminism,” Sex Roles , 2011, 64(9–10): 768787, doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9987-3.

R. S. Robins  and R. M. Dorn , “Stress and political leadership,” Politics and the Life Sciences , 1993, 12(1): 317.

W. J. Stone , S. A. Fulton , C. D. Maestas , and L. S. Maisel , “Incumbency reconsidered: Prospects, strategic retirement, and incumbent quality in US House elections,” Journal of Politics , 2010, 72(1): 178190.

J. Trounstine , “Evidence of a local incumbency advantage,” Legislative Studies Quarterly , 2011, 36(2): 255280, doi:10.1111/j.1939-9162.2011.00013.x.

L. S. Maisel  and W. J. Stone , “Determinants of candidate emergence in US house elections: An exploratory study,” Legislative Studies Quarterly , 1997, 22(1): 7996.

P. S. Hernson , “Campaign professionalism and fundraising in congressional elections,” Journal of Politics , 1992, 54(3): 859870, doi:10.2307/2132315.

C. D. Maestas  and C. R. Rugeley , “Assessing the ‘experience bonus’ through examining strategic entry, candidate quality, and campaign receipts in US house elections,” American Journal of Political Science , 2008, 52(3): 520535.

W. J. Stone , L. S. Maisel , and C. D. Maestas , “Quality counts: Extending the strategic politician model of incumbent deterrence,” American Journal of Political Science , 2004, 48(3): 479495, doi:10.1111/j.0092-5853.2004.00082.x.

P. L. Francia  and P. S. Herrnson , “The impact of public finance laws on fundraising in state legislative elections,” American Politics Research , 2003, 31(5): 520539, doi:10.1177/1532673X03256784.

K. Sanbonmatsu , “The legislative party and candidate recruitment in the American states,” Party Politics , 2006, 12(2): 233256.

J. Megarry , “Online incivility or sexual harassment? Conceptualising women’s experiences in the digital age,” Women’s Studies International Forum , 2014, 47: 4655.

S. Jenkins , “A woman’s work is never done? Fundraising perception and effort among female state legislative candidates,” Political Research Quarterly , 2007, 60(2): 230239.

G. Deason , J. S. Greenlee , and C. A. Langner , “Mothers on the campaign trail: Implications of politicized motherhood for women in politics,” Politics, Groups, and Identities , 2015, 3(1): 133148.

B. L. Stalsburg , “Voting for mom: The political consequences of being a parent for male and female candidates,” Politics and Gender , 2010, 6(3): 373404.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Politics and the Life Sciences
  • ISSN: 0730-9384
  • EISSN: 1471-5457
  • URL: /core/journals/politics-and-the-life-sciences
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 15
Total number of PDF views: 102 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 529 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 27th October 2016 - 21st July 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.