The Sense of a Woman: Gender, Ambition, and the Decision to Run for Congress Academic Article uri icon


  • Do men and women differ in their decisionmaking calculus for higher office? To answer this question, we use a survey of state legislators (SLs) in 1998 to examine the conditions under which male and female SLs seek a position in the U.S. House of Representatives. We consider three ways in which gender may influence ambition and the decision to run - indirectly, directly, and interactively - and we find evidence of all three effects. Female state legislators are less ambitious than males for a U.S. House seat, a difference that largely stems from gender disparities in child-care responsibilities. However, despite their lower ambition, female SLs are just as likely as their male counterparts to seek a congressional position. This apparent puzzle is solved by the finding that the expected benefit of office mediates the relationship between ambition and the likelihood of run-ning. Female SLs are much more responsive to the expected benefit of office than are males, offsetting their diminished ambition level. The sense of a woman is reflected in female state legislators' increased sensitivity to the strategic considerations surrounding a congressional candidacy. Because men and women respond differently to the intersection of ambition and opportunity, gender constitutes an important, yet often neglected, explanatory variable in the decision-to-run calculus.

altmetric score

  • 24.5

author list (cited authors)

  • Fulton, S. A., Maestas, C. D., Maisel, L. S., & Stone, W. J.

citation count

  • 111

publication date

  • June 2006