Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Lea Hubbard, PhD, Chair Laura J. Deitrick, PhD, Member Lorri Sulpizio, PhD, Member


women, politics, local office, leadership, political ambition, community engagement, grounded theory


Women remain underrepresented across every level of elected office in the United States. More than 30 years after the supposed “Year of the Woman,” women hold less than 30% of the elected positions in local, state, and federal office. In the past, researchers attributed the paucity of women in office to structural barriers, including sexism in the electorate, fundraising difficulties, and discrimination by party gate keepers. A growing body of research, however, attributes the dearth of female politicians to a lack of political ambition among women and to gender socialization that prevents women from seeing themselves as political leaders.

The purpose of this study was to use a grounded theory approach to understand the journeys of women to local elected office and the skills they deployed to make meaningful contributions once elected. To date, most studies of women in office rely on large national surveys and focus almost exclusively on federal office holders. Interviews with eleven women already in local elected office in California provided rich information about the experiences that led these women to run for office and how they served once elected. Specifically, this study identified that early community engagement – acts of voluntarism, advocacy or activism – served to prime women to think of themselves as potential political candidates. Recruitment, training and support, especially from those who were already elected, catalyzed their decisions to run for office. Once elected, the women in this study described deploying communal and relational skills and strategies to make meaningful contributions in their roles.

These results stand in contrast with the notion that women perceive themselves as lacking the confidence and qualities of an elected leader and suggest that further study is needed, particularly as it relates to local elected officials. Understanding what motivates and inspires women to successfully run for office, despite structural and gendered barriers, may inform efforts to bring gender parity to our politics.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies