Why do women give less to political campaigns than men?

A new analysis finds that only about 30 percent of large donors to political campaigns are women, a figure that has remained relatively steady since the late 1980s.

John Locher/AP Photo
Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas.

A new analysis by The New York Times finds that only about 30 percent of large donors to political campaigns are women. The average contribution from women to the Congressional campaigns of each party fell between 20 and 29 percent, while those for presidential campaigns were slightly higher.  

What’s remarkable is that these are figures that have remained relatively steady since the late 1980s. 

So why is it the case that women generally do not contribute as much money as men to political campaigns? Researchers have historically pointed to the lack of political resources that are available to women, caused by the fact that women sometimes choose careers with less political clout and often have less time to volunteer compared with men, even if they are interested in becoming politically active.  

However, once they do tap into those resources, women have generally become even more politically active than men. Women also typically vote more frequently than men: in 12 elections, from 1964 to 2008, the number of female voters outnumbered male voters. In 2008, approximately 70 million women cast a ballot, while the nearest number of male voters was 60 million. But the historically high number of female voters does not explain their routinely small presence in financing Congressional and presidential campaigns.

“They give out of more empathetic and altruistic reasons than men do,” Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, told The New York Times. “Women may not feel that their money in the political arena is going to fulfill those motivations.”

In 1989, when data on the subject was first collected and studied, a study by researchers at both Boston University and Harvard University suggested that, “When it comes to using family money for political purposes, what might matter … is not simply the level of household income but also control over income.”

In other words, the historic gap between men’s and women’s earnings might not only have implications for their personal lives, but may also limit their ability to wield political influence. Even in 2014, women made just 79 cents to every dollar their male counterparts earned.

This is of special significance in light of the "Citizens United" 2010 decision in which the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of unlimited campaign contributions from organizations. Because of this decision, over time the shape of campaign finance may become increasingly corporate – and male.

While it is still illegal to give money directly to candidates, the Citizens United ruling prompted many corporations to create SuperPACs: direct channels for companies to direct billions of dollars to flow into the campaigns of their choice.

In the 2011-12 election cycle, SuperPACs raised approximately $8.3 billion in total. SuperPAC contributions to political campaigns, of course, would not be categorized as coming from either men or women. Yet the truth is that the money comes from corporations whose leadership is primarily male: of the S&P 500, only 4.4% of their CEOS are women, and women comprise only 19.2% of their board seats.

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