Ever look at the ballot on Election Day and wonder why the candidates aren’t more like – you?
Much has been written this year about voter dissatisfaction with the candidates on the top of the ticket. The leading presidential candidates have notoriously been dubbed the least liked in modern history, with pollsters noting their low favorability and high unfavorability ratings.
We at Women’s Leadership LIVE see female leaders everywhere – in our communities, our businesses, our schools, our homes. Why don’t they run for political office? It could be their aversion to the media and opposition researchers examining every decision, expenditure and personal encounter of their lives; or the physical and emotional demands of the campaign trail; or the constant intrusion of a 24/7 news cycle – all valid reasons. But The New York Times reports that too often, there’s a “confidence gap” – women simply lack the confidence necessary to launch a political campaign.
“When women run for political office, they are just as likely as men to be elected. The main reason they are so underrepresented is that they don’t run in the first place,” it reported.
Women’s Leadership LIVE has held its first two events in cities led by women. Mayors Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Texas, and Jackie Biskupski of Salt Lake City, Utah, addressed our audiences. Yet research shows they are a small minority – right now only one in five elected officials nationwide are women.
Congress has 20 women out of 100 Senators and 84 women out of 435 Representatives. According to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, the numbers aren’t much better in our states and cities. Women make up 24.4 percent of state legislatures and 24 percent of statewide executives (six governors, 12 lieutenant governors, and 57 other officials elected statewide). Among the 1,391 cities with more than 30,000 people, only 262 have female mayors (18.8 percent); and women account for just 19 mayors among the 100 largest cities (19 percent). Mayor Van Duyne is one of them, and she noted the confidence gap when she spoke at WLL’s first live event in Irving in May.
“So many women don’t want to run for office because well, I’m not there yet, I need more experience, I need more support,” she said. “Just do it. We have so few people who run, and then you wonder why you have the politicians you have.”
Mayor Van Duyne said the first step is simply paying attention to local issues, which affect every citizen, small business and neighborhood. She noted that Irving is the country’s 92nd largest city, with 235,000 residents. It has 90,000 registered voters – but only 5,000 voted in the most recent municipal election this spring.
“Volunteer for a campaign. Find out someone who’s running who shares your ideals and your values and work for them. Or, novel idea, run for an office,” she said.
Research indicates women tend to wait until they are more qualified to run for office – even if they are running for the same office as men. They also wait to be recruited by others, though they are less likely to be encouraged by their parents, teachers or party leaders to run. And it happens on both sides of the aisle, at every level of office.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told the New York Times that lack of confidence was the most common factor that stopped women who told her they considered running for office – something she never encountered among men. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, said she spent ten years volunteering on campaigns before having the confidence to run herself. “Women are the biggest self-doubters,” she said.
Despite knowing her entire life she’d be involved in public service, Mayor Biskupski of Salt Lake City admits she waited, too – until an issue she heard about on the local news compelled her to action.
“Throughout my career I have learned a lot about women in leadership. The biggest thing I learned: women wait,” Mayor Biskupski said. “All too often, we wait for the ‘perfect time’ to move forward, to move up, to make change. I can tell you firsthand, there is never a perfect time to step up and lead. On too many issues, we can’t afford to wait for the debate and the dialogue to change. It is past time for more women to step into leadership roles.”
While their words and actions as elected officials certainly matter, their very presence is worth applauding. “You have to see it to be it,” as famed barrier breaker Billie Jean King once said – and Mayors Van Duyne and Biskupski are inspiring other women to see themselves in public office by showing them that women can run and win. Run for your local school board, city council or state legislature. Run for Congress, Senate or Governor. Run for President. Next time you look at a ballot and shrug unenthusiastically about your choices, look inward. There’s only one way to find a candidate with whom you agree 100 percent of the time on 100 percent of the issues – run for office yourself.
“Trust me, as soon as you stick your name out there, people will find you,” Mayor Van Duyne said.