In a comprehensive analysis of young men’s and women’s aspirations to public office, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox discover that part of the reason we see so few female politicians is because women just aren’t interested in running.  There are lots of reasons for this.  A absence of role models, a lack of encouragement from their parents, and the intimidating role that sexist attacks play in media coverage of campaigns.

But Lawless and Fox discovered another interesting correlation, one between political aspiration and sports.  More men than women – 74% compared to 41% — played on a college or intramural team and, for both, playing sports was correlated with political aspirations.  The figure shows that running for office had “crossed the minds: of 44% of women who played sports and 35% who hadn’t.  The numbers for men were 63% and 55% respectively.

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The authors suggest that the mediating factor is “an opportunity to develop… a competitive spirit.”  Sports, they argue, may build or reinforce the tendency to find pleasure in competition, which may make politics more appealing.

While sports increased both men’s and women’s interest in politics, it had a greater effect for women, shrinking the gender gap in political ambition by half.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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