"Certainly having Nancy Pelosi be speaker of the House suggests that a woman can get elected and become speaker of the House and that's a vital ingredient," Lawless said. "But having an internship in any member of Congress' office probably confers a greater degree of confidence, experience, skills, and interest in terms of someone's own future potential candidacy than the mere presence of a female speaker."
In other words, it might have more of an effect on women's future political prospects to work in Nancy Pelosi's office than to see that Nancy Pelosi is holding that office.
The silver lining is that this new research indicates that among those who played varsity-level sports, men and women were both much likelier to express interest in running for office. Sixty-three precent of men who played sports were likely to say they would consider a run for office compared with 55 percent of men; among women, 44 percent of those who played sports said they would consider a run compared with 35 percent who did not.
And the number of girls and women participating in competitive sports has risen dramatically in the last 40 years since Title IX. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that in 1972, when Title IX giving women equal access to sports was passed, girls made up just 7.4 precent of high school athletes. In the 2010-2011 school year, that percentage was 41.4.
The downside, of course, is that women are less likely to play sports—and especially competitive sports—in the first place.
"I think getting women to participate in these organized sports is going to require the same kind of encouragement and recruitment that politics requires," Lawless said.
If cultural forces manage to change for women who might run for office one day, it might get women to gender parity. In the meantime, the United States currently ranks 77th on an international list of women's participation in national government. And the strategies that have been successful at getting women's participation rates up—strong party systems and constitutional quotas—are unlikely to ever happen in America.
Stephanie Schriock, president of the pro-choice political PAC EMILY's List, said in a statement provided to The Atlantic, "Whether you see the gender gap in leadership as a reflection of innate or systemic roadblocks, getting more women to run for political office is the answer. Not only do women in elected office serve as role models for future generations to follow in their footsteps, they inspire a country to develop more women into leaders."
Lawless seems optimistic that changing cultural forces might eventually lead to more women in government, but she worries about women ever getting to the point of considering running for office.
"If a woman or a young girl thinks about running for office, and makes the conscious decision that this is just not for her and she'd rather work behind the scenes or she'd rather be an astronaut, that's fine. My concern is that it's less likely to appear on women's radar screens in the first place," she said.
Lawless wants more women to be like Judd, who at least seriously thought about running for office. Lawless' ultimate goal is to get more women actually running for office so that more women can hold office. Her research points to a disappointing number of women who are opting out before they even consider the idea of running.