It has always puzzled me why more women don’t run for office. While our country is majority female, women are seriously underrepresented in politics. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women hold only 24.8% of statewide offices in our country and make up 24.2% of state legislators. From my experience, when women run for office, they often outperform male candidates at the same officeholder level or geographic area by as much as 5% – a HUGE swing. This makes it even more astonishing that our elected officials are, by far, men.
So why do women make up almost 51% of the population but only a quarter of elected officials? Recent research shows there is a gender gap in political ambition. A report from American University states that “Young women are less likely than young men ever to have considered running for office, to express interest in a candidacy at some point in the future, or to consider elective office a desirable profession.” Women are also less likely to have others pushing them to run for office.
A 2008 Brookings study explains:
The lack of recruitment appears to be a particularly powerful explanation for why women are less likely than men to consider running for office. A respondent who receives external support to run from both a political and non-political actor more than doubles his or her likelihood of considering a candidacy. Women are just as likely as men to respond favorably to the suggestion of a candidacy, but they are less likely than men to receive it.
As a guy, this seems wrong. I know many women who would be fantastic candidates but never consider running until someone asks, or even when asked they decline or believe they aren’t qualified or ready. My good friend Amy Parham, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Texas, echoed these sentiments, saying:
“By habit and by nature, women excel at creating opportunities for others. Opportunities for their children, for their church, for the organizations they serve, but they often have more trouble seizing opportunities for themselves. The irony, of course, is that by seizing opportunities for leadership and public service, they can create opportunities for others on an even larger scale.“
Don’t Wait By the Phone
My original inspiration for this post was the personal story conveyed by Martha Laning, Wisconsin’s newly elected Democratic Party Chair. Her “how I got here” narrative included a line about the “party asking her to run” for State Senate after seeing her success in fundraising for a community center in Sheboygan. While I’m all for candidate recruitment, it struck me as interesting that with her successful business career and community involvement Martha didn’t decide to run of her own accord – she was certainly well-qualified.
So what should be done to encourage more women to run for office? First, let’s make sure that aspiring women know they are invited to the party – that is, the Democratic Party wants them to run and welcomes their participation with open arms.
Cynthia Terrell of Representation2020 recommends intentional action to move the needle, including community involvement:
…state and local parties—along with the “kingmakers” and would-be “queenmakers” associated with them like unions and chambers of commerce—to set goals of how many women they expect to recruit each election cycle and adopt requirements that at least half of their donations in a cycle need to go to women candidates.
Timing is also an issue. Running for office is time-intensive and occupies the life of a candidate for the duration of the election cycle. Once elected, things aren’t necessarily better. Work schedules for elected officials sometimes seem to ignore the fact that any of us have families – going late into the evening, scheduling sessions at odd hours, and so on.
Taking Advantage of Existing Resources
Next, when women decide they are interested in running or want to learn more before they take the plunge, let’s make sure they have the resources they need. Here are some national and state organizations that provide training, encouragement, fundraising assistance and more:
EMILY’s List: their mission is simply to “elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.” They recruit, train and support national, statewide and congressional candidates.
Emerge America: “The premier training program for Democratic women.” Their program is unique in that it offers seven months of candidate training!
NOW PAC: Organizes and raises money for feminist candidates.
Ready to Run: The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers helps organize state trainings for aspiring candidates.
Annie’s List: Texas’ counterpart to EMILY’s List. They pay and train campaign managers, staffers and aspiring candidates. Their “Candidate 101” sessions are held very frequently across the state.
Emerge Wisconsin: Wisconsin’s state Emerge organization. Executive Director Erin Forrest had this to say about their program:
“Studies have shown that even with an equivalent or superior resume, women are far less likely to consider themselves qualified to run for office than men. At Emerge we give women an intensive training on the technical skills they will need to run an effective campaign, but we do a lot more than that. The women in our program spend a lot of time getting to know each other and themselves. We spend time identifying the reasons they want to run for office and exploring ways they can make the change they seek once they are elected. We also introduce them to many women holding office at different levels of government who can give them an honest assessment of what it’s like and what it takes. They leave the program with a new set of skills, higher confidence level, the motivation to run, and a support network to see them through it.”
Don’t Let Anything Stop You
If you think you’re interested in becoming a candidate or working on campaigns, the resources are out there, so don’t be afraid to seize the opportunity. Take advantage of what’s available to help you in your decision-making process. We’re also here to help connect you to the political community and chat about your aspirations.
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