No Excuses Allowed: Tackling The #1 Reason Women Don't Run For Office

BlogHer Original Post

Woman Using a Telephone in an Election Campaign Office

In 2004 and again in 2008, Jennifer Lawless (Director, Women & Politics Institute, American University) and Robert Fox published reports that examine why women don't run for elected position. The first was called Why Don't Women Run For Office?, and Why Are Women Still Not Running For Office? was the follow up. Both reports eventually were published as books

While seen as mostly accurate in nailing a number of issues related to the paucity of women in elected office, especially the suggestion that women may be victims of an ambition gap, there also was some criticism of that perspective being placed above systemic sexism.

I personally don't buy the ambition gap per se, or even the assertion in an article from just a few weeks ago, Stagnating Gains For Women in Politics, that "The central obstacle to getting more women in elected office is the fact that they are less likely to even want to run for office." [bold emphasis is mine]

Instead, as Lawless' work is cited as finding in, Glass Starting Gate: Voters Will Elect Them, But Women Still Have to Run, it's not that women don't want to run. Rather:

Lawless and Fox conclude from their research that a more important factor than sexism in the paucity of women holding elective office is that women receive less encouragement to run from friends, family, colleagues and those already involved in politics. “The lack of recruitment appears to be a particularly powerful explanation for why women are less likely than men to consider running for office,” they write in the study. “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.”

Accordlingly, in 2009 the White House Project's Benchmarking Women's Leadership report took this truth one step further and made its top recommendation: "Support Training Programs:"

Programs designed to train women to run for office can be highly effective, and research shows that funding and women’s support organizations are the most critical factors in persuading women to run for office....Training programs encourage women to take that leap due to the inspiration, information, and tools that they provide, as well as networks of support which are garnered through their involvement.

Of course, part of encouraging you to realize that you can lead a more political life -- whether it's helping someone else run for office or running for office yourself -- is to help you see that there is no excuse you can't get over.

The biggest buggaboo out there right now -- I often think it's being manipulated specifically to scare off women -- is the media bias, sexism and stereotyping, all rolled-up into one multi-layered systemic problem. 

Prime examples: the fantastic collage of clips showing treatment of Hillary Clinton, called Sexism Sells - But We're Not Buying It, courtesy of the Women's Media Center (you absolutely must watch that video again just to remember how wretched many in the media were) and Jennifer Pozner's great post at NPR that highlighted the same kind of ridiculousness levied by the media at Sarah Palin.

Then, there's the sexist treatment we can get from our own constituents. I lost count of how many residents suggested that maybe I should run for school board first because, you know, I have kids. No offense to anyone who serves on a school board; this is just an illustration of how, when older residents in particular were faced with a youngish mom accompanied by her school-aged kids, they just -- out of their tradition -- assumed that because I have kids that would only qualify me to be interested in kid things, like education, as opposed to city government things like... I'm not even sure what.  (This kind of treatment doesn't necessarily stop once you are elected either, and knowledge of that kind of treatment, once in the arena, also can keep women from running, but it shouldn't.)

How do you beat that? By knowing - and I mean, knowing - that:

  • none of that has to do with the issues that most concern most voters,
  • none of that has to do with your integrity,
  • none of that has to do with your abilities and
  • all of it is countered by your continued presence and existence as a viable candidate for elected office, no matter how immature, impolitic and inaccurate those sexist portrayals may be.

Another excuse women must stomp down: According to Lawless' research, women were twice as likely as men to rate themselves “not at all qualified” to run for public office, yet when women run, they fundraise and win on par with male candidates.

This is not to say that as a potential candidate you should not vet yourself. Most training programs will talk to you about assessing your chances of winning. But the thought that you are not qualified? Fahgettaboutit.  Men do. We probably don't -- and that means that right from the start, we're probably already better qualified. Nothing wrong with expecting a lot from yourself, but not to the point that you think not knowing everything in Wikipedia disqualifies you from running for your county party or city council.

Another big topic of worry: privacy. There's no denying that privacy issues must be defined and re-defined when you consider running for political office. But in the era of Facebook and, of course, blogging, the standards for privacy have morphed into allowing us to be authentic and real and human. My experience with this shift, before the very eyes of my constituents, has been outstanding. We are in the midst of being able to change this dialogue with our consittuents and define it for ourselves -- and not let others define it.  We put down the boundaries, and we respect them as well. 

Still, maybe you then say that you are afraid of what will happen to or with your kids.

Again, this is truly a big long and embraceable teaching moment. They love the role-modeling. But you must be balanced. My 9 year old ran for student council and won after having lost the year before. The parents teased me that it must have been because of all the yard signs the kids passed on the bus that said, "ZIMON."  My daughter, who is in middle school, loves the "world domination" meme a la Joanne Bamberger's PunditMom. And my 11th grader was the first to say he can't wait to see me give an inspirational speech.

But still... you say, you are worried that your schedule is already pathetically hectic. I've got an answer for that too -- and it really does work. I know, because I really buckled down and did it. One simple four letter solution: PLAN.  In January and February of last year, I started to meet with people and read up on running for office. I re-read my training materials -- online and offline. 

And then, I really did this -- I pulled out a completely separate, dedicated calendar for campaigning.  And I wrote everything on it through November 2009.  Vacations, holidays, school breaks, birthdays, open houses, recitals, school band and orchestra concerts. EVERYTHING. Then I layered in every single public city government meeting, making sure that I cleared those dates for kid-coverage so that I wouldn't miss a single event.  Then I counted backwards from election day to see how many days I had left, and how many days until filing, and when did I have to file finance documents and when did absentee voting start, and on and on and on.  And I did it.  And I don't even have family in town and I didn't hire a single other person and I am still married -- celebrating 20 years of knowing each other this fall -- and no one called the 696-KIDS hotline to report abuse or neglect.

Other excuses you will give: you hate fundraising; you've never run before or every time you ran for something, you lost; you hate politicians -- how can you become one?

Seriously. I have spoken every last one of these excuses while tremendously smart, experienced and above all encouraging women have smiled at me and encouraged me and convinced me to push them all aside.

It can feel very scary to realize that you've run out of excuses for why you think you can't run for office.  But eventually, sooner or later, you will be left realizing that walking the walk of not tolerating the low percentages of women in elected office or politics as usual starts with accepting that these are only excuses and they can all be overcome with encouragement and support -- and flooding the pipeline and the the positions with women - now.

More resources:


Jill Writes Like She Talks
In The Arena: Jill Miller Zimon, Pepper Pike City Council Member


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