Why Women Should Run (and why you should vote for them!)

My name is Ruth Hardy and I am the Executive Director of Emerge Vermont, an organization that recruits, trains, and inspires Democratic women to run for public office. I’m here to talk about why women should run for office, and why you should vote for them.

It seems timely to be talking about women running for public office, given all that is going on in the presidential race.

Gender appears to be inextricably linked to electoral politics these days. Here in Vermont, we see it in our more well-behaved top executive race, with Sue Minter running for Governor and campaigning on so-called women’s issues, such as domestic violence prevention and paid family leave. With Hillary on the national stage and Sue on the Vermont one, it may seem like women could be taking over.

But, nationwide, women hold fewer than one-quarter of the more than 500,000 elected offices. In many regions or elected bodies, women hold far fewer positions. The representation for women of color compared to their percentage of the population is even more abysmal.

The vast majority of elected officials in the United States are white men. Women are definitely not taking over.

What about in Vermont? It turns out that school boards are the only elected offices in Vermont where, statewide, women have an equal number of seats at the table. Although it’s not equally distributed, and many counties lag behind. My own county, Addison, where I serve on a school board, does not yet have gender parity. (Based on data provided by the Vermont School Boards Association and tallied by Emerge Vermont.)

Our other local boards, namely city councils, boards of aldermen, and selectboards are nowhere close to statewide gender parity. As of 2015, only about 21% of these local board members were women. And, only one of Vermont’s eight mayors is a woman.

At the state legislative level Vermont does much better. Over 40% of our state legislators are women, leading us to the second highest percentage of women in our state legislature, behind only Colorado. Though the House compensates for the Senate, as only 30% of senators are women.

Statewide elections prove to be a particular challenge for Vermont women. Currently only one of our statewide offices is held by a woman.

Vermont is one of only three states to have never elected a woman to Congress. Delaware is on the brink of electing a woman to the US House of Representatives, so that will leave just us…and Mississippi.

All of this leads Vermont to a ranking of 41st among the fifty states, according to the non-partisan organization, Representation 2020.

Gender parity among elected officials in the United States will not be achieved any time soon. In fact, we’re stagnating, while other countries are coming closer to parity.

In 1993, Vermont ranked 7th in the U.S. In 1997, the United States ranked 52nd in the world. Today Vermont ranks 41st in a country that ranks 97th worldwide for gender parity.

The 2016 election clearly offers high stakes for gender equity among elected officials. Nationally, we could elect our first Woman President of the United States.

But we’re unlikely to make much headway in Congress, where fewer than 20 percent of members are women, and the pace of change is slow. It will take another 100 years to reach Congressional gender parity at the rate we’re going.

In Vermont, we could elect Sue Minter as our second Woman Governor, 32 years after we elected our first and only woman to that post. In addition, we could see some important gains in our state legislature, especially the senate.

And, several women are considering bids for legislative leadership positions. Come January we could have women as House Speaker, Senate Pro Tempore, and Governor. These gains would certainly raise Vermont’s ranking for the next gender parity analysis. Perhaps we’ll be in the middle of the pack in a country close to the bottom.

But why are so few women in elected office?  Despite high profile candidates like Hillary and Sue, the bottom line is not enough women are running.

Why don’t women run? There are a number of complex reasons.

Women don’t think they are as qualified. A survey of who runs for office asked identically qualified men and women found that only 22% of women compared to 35% of men thought of themselves as very qualified to run. Similarly, the survey found that women were less likely to see themselves as confident, competitive, or thick-skinned, all traits perceived to be important for elected office.

As Emerge Vermont founder Madeleine Kunin says, “Men wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say – I think I could be a senator. Women don’t.”

Women have less political ambition than men. And the ambition women do have for politics is shrinking. Fewer women today than 15 years ago are interested in pursuing public office, while men’s political ambition is staying steady.

Women are less likely to be asked to run. Men are asked to run by everyone far more often than women. And, while men often jump at the suggestion, women need to be asked repeatedly – by some accounts, an average of seven times before they’ll actually run.

Women need more time to make the decision to run, and to get their ducks in a row. Those ducks tend to be child and elder care, housework, finances, and professional careers that are already stretched thin by these other obligations. Women still do more caregiving and housework. Women still make less money and have less stable employment.  Most women need time to sort these things out before they will run.

Our polarized, partisan system may be another barrier for women in office. Over the past 25 years, nearly all the gains for women in elected office have been for Democratic women. While Republicans overall have made huge gains up and down the ballot, the overall number of Republican women in office has barely budged.

Incumbency too has made it harder for women to break into politics. Most elected officials run for re-election and most incumbents win. High incumbency win rates mean that every election cycle about 86% of the seats in Congress are already taken. People are staying in office longer than in the past. And people in office are mostly men.

Women who do run are often the victim of a double standard held by the media and voters. Women must be likeable and strong to get votes. And likeable women are often not seen as strong, and strong women are often not likable.

All these factors lead to a lack of role models for women who may actually wish to run for office. As Sue Minter has said, “You’ve got to see it to be it!” But women and girls look at our elected officials, and they see mostly white men.

It turns out that in many important ways, women may be more effective legislators and policy makers than men. Women govern differently.

Overall, women tend to be more collaborative leaders than men, and they get more done. They work across aisles and tables to create policy, sponsoring or co-sponsoring more legislation than men. During government shut-downs, women in Congress are often the only ones who show up, work together, and find solutions to get the government back up and running. (See Jay Newton-Small’s bookBroad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works” for detailed case studies and analysis of the impact of women in politics and culture.)

Women leaders are usually better listeners than men. Women are socialized to listen, so women in public office hear what their constituents and colleagues want and need, and then act on what they’ve heard.

Women diversify nearly all public decision-making bodies, and diverse groups make better decisions. Do you want your company to run better and make more money? Do you want your government to run better and make more progress? In both cases, get more women at the table. And not just one woman, but a critical mass of women who will provide the amplification necessary to make each other heard. (See also Newton-Small book.)

Women lead with compassion and focus on issues that are often overlooked by men, like women’s and children’s health, workplace equity, economic inequality, community and personal safety, youth and elder issues, and education, family leave and support. Women bring different life experiences to the table, and by doing so, broaden policy discussions and outcomes.

Women in office are better for our daughters. It turns out that when there are more women in public leadership positions, parents have higher aspirations for their daughters’ futures, and girls themselves have higher aspirations for what they can do. Having more women in office changes how society thinks about women and girls, and how we think about ourselves.

More women elected to office is better for government, better for society, and better for women and girls, yet women face numerous personal and structural barriers and therefore aren’t running. So what are we going to do, we leaders in Vermont?

Other countries have provided a jolt to the system. They have legislated gender equity through constitutional or statutory law changes requiring equal representation. They have had their political parties voluntarily impose gender quotas for candidates they will support. They have a parliamentary system or rank choice voting within which women tend to be more successful. Or sadly, they have endured tragedies such as war and genocide, so in some cases women leaders are all that remain.

It’s not likely that such changes will happen in the United States. So what could we commit to instead?

1) Are you a woman? Run for office. This is me asking you. Talk to me about Emerge training and how we can help you prepare.

2) Are you a man? Don’t equate gender equality with male marginalization. You’ve had your turn at blanket electoral authority. Now make room for women. Work for women to gain parity, equality, and a seat at every table you’ve dominated for centuries.

3) Ask the smart, passionate, engaged women you know to run for office. I’ll bet you know a lot of them. Ask them seven times!

4) Support women who are running for office – with your money, your time, your encouragement, and your vote.

5) Demand accountability within your party, elected officials, the government, and the media. How is it that we’ve gotten to the political discourse we’ve seen this month? Because we have not sufficiently required accountability from any of these groups.

6) Don’t boo, vote. If anyone here is thinking of sitting out this election, or of writing in a protest vote: Don’t. There is far too much at stake. And if you do, I’ll sick Samantha Bee on you, and you’ll never be the same.

Thank you for listening. It’s been a pleasure!

Note: Ruth Hardy gave this talk at the Vermont Leadership Network Reunion on October 14, 2016.

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