Although your field, optical neurophysiology, is vastly different from my own, the motivations behind our research are very similar, in that we both hope to use our research to solve pervasive social problems and impact our communities in positive ways.
Women are discouraged, both implicitly and explicitly, from pursuing careers in science, politics, and academia. In my own field, Women and American Politics, scholars have found that although women are well-represented in the workforce and the fields that have often led to political careers, they remain vastly underrepresented in elected offices at all levels. The fact that women make up about half of the population but have never represented more than about a quarter of all elected officials undermines the quality of our democracy.
There is a growing body of research that seeks to explain the underrepresentation of women in American politics, with some of the leading explanations including traditional gender socialization, a shortage of openings for women due to the reelection of incumbents, party and voter bias towards women, and poor recruitment efforts by political parties and women’s organizations.
Unfortunately, much of this research has employed an “add women and stir” approach, in which researchers grab the traditional male models and simply apply them to women. When one considers that women have significantly increased their presence in fields such as law and business, from which many men run for political office, it is puzzling that the number of women in office has remained fairly stagnant. However, recent research by Susan Carroll and Kira Sanbonmatsu, of Rutgers University (2013), has pointed out that most female elected officials come, not from the fields of law and business, but, rather, from those of health and education, lending credence to the notion that women simply take different pathways to office than do men.
Also overlooked have been the differences between the experiences of white women and women of color. The literature has tended to collapse such distinctions in the interest of understanding the underrepresentation of women in American politics as a whole; however, research by Becki Scola (2008, 2013) has found that women of color are better represented than white women in proportion to their male counterparts, and women of color are the most likely to be found in the type of political culture that white women are the least likely to be found in. We still have little to no understanding of why these distinctions exist. Yet, this information is crucial in order to increase the representation of women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in U.S. government.
For my own research, I propose a mixed-methods study, consisting of a survey that will be sent to all female state legislators in the United States and a random sample of male state legislators, as well as in-depth interviews with 25-50 racially-diverse female state legislators from states that vary geographically and ideologically to provide greater insight into the survey findings. I plan to use these data to answer the following questions: How do female legislators of color differ from their white counterparts? What factors contribute to these differences? What solutions can reasonably be employed to increase the representation of all women in political office?