Lawyer Leah Simon-Weisberg has been busy this fall campaigning for a spot on the rent board in Berkeley, Calif. As legal director of Tenants Together, she’s well versed in the problems of area renters. Now, she’s looking to help mold housing policy in her city by running for local office.
By seeking elected office, women like Simon-Weisberg help ensure an American democracy that represents all of its people. After all, women comprise more than half of the United States’ population, yet female representation remains poor throughout all tiers of government. Often, community-based roles serve as an entry point for women who are interested in politics. That means boosting women’s participation at the local level is vital to getting more women involved at every other level. It’s also key to getting the best talent at the decision-making table.
Simon-Weisberg took on the challenge out of a feeling of personal responsibility, she says, but seeking elected office had always been on her radar. She was raised in a politically engaged family, and was further inspired by the relative utopias she observed for women in government while traveling abroad.
She also believes in the need to achieve a “critical mass” of women in government. But getting there has been frustratingly slow, she laments. Simon-Weisberg recalls being inspired as kid by Geraldine Ferraro when she saw her speak during her 1984 vice presidential run. “The fact that it has taken basically my entire lifetime to get from her to Hillary, it’s kind of sad.”
Through her bid for rent board, Simon-Weisberg hopes to be part of the solution. And she’s not the only woman stepping up; more than 180 women are running for U.S. House, Senate and governorships this year (see our comprehensive map of these women candidates on ballots nationwide).
Still, in American politics, women continue to be woefully underrepresented due to a laundry list of barriers and double standards that hold back many female candidates. But there is hope on the horizon.
The Slow Ascent of Women in Government
Some have called 1992 the Year of the Woman. In that election, an unprecedented number of women won contested Senate seats, and a total of five women took Senate seats. At the time, it was revolutionary.
But more than two decades later, women remain a small minority of elected officials. Today, 20 Senate seats are occupied by women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Women hold just under 20 percent of House of Representatives seats and 24 percent of state-level executive offices. Overall, says the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 71 percent of elected officials are men, 90 percent are white and 65 percent are white men.
Globally, the United States ranks 95th in terms of women’s presence in government, Representation 2020 finds.
This reality is mostly due to the fact that women run for office far less frequently than men do, and often have to be asked by peers to take on a campaign. (Research shows that, when they do run, they win just as often as men.) While we’ve seen a slight uptick in female candidates over the years, the numbers aren’t moving as much as one might expect — indeed, they’ve plateaued over the past few elections.
Women frequently struggle to see themselves as elected officials, due in part to societal views of men as leaders and women as supporters. And girls tend to receive less encouragement to run for office later in life — at home, at school and at work, according to an American University study.
Meanwhile, the divisive nature of the 2016 election may have made matters worse. In a survey commissioned by the 1,000 Dreams Fund, 59 percent of nearly 1,000 young women interviewed expressed interest in public service — but 64 percent of the interested pool said this year’s election cycle has given them pause.
Finances, Family Time and Other Pain Points
“The biggest challenge is getting women to run in the first place,” says Erin Loos Cutraro, co-founder and current CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to grow the ranks of female candidates.
She says the women the group works with are often concerned about sexism — and their fears are based in sobering realities. Female candidates often face questions about who will care for children in their families, whether male spouses support their efforts, and, of course, what they’re wearing.
Simon-Weisberg is all too familiar with such queries. “I was surprised at how many people kept asking my husband how he felt about it. No one asked that of any of the” male candidates’ wives, she says.
Muthoni Wambu Kraal, senior director for state and local campaigns for Emily’s List, which seeks to elect pro-choice women, says many of the women she has worked with “saw themselves more as helpers, rather than the center stage person,” and picturing themselves as a candidate was “definitely an evolutionary process.”
For those who do take on the challenge, campaign financing and networking are frequently cited problems. “Women don’t come to the campaign trail with the same boys’ club network built in that men do,” Cutraro says. “We often hear that women feel they have to work harder for those connections.”
Kraal agreed, particularly in regard to fundraising, likening the experience of raising money for a campaign to getting start-up funds for a small business (something much of our readership is familiar with). But, she adds, they must do so in a very short period of time, “and you’re not supposed to end with a surplus.”
“Even for a school board run, in Los Angeles you’re looking at a $1 million race. Women were losing campaign after campaign because they hadn’t been given guidance on how to put together a campaign infrastructure to raise that level of money,” she says. And much as it is for female entrepreneurs, work-life balance is elusive at best. “It’s really, really tough, especially for a person who still needs to hold a full-time job.”
Double Standards for Female Candidates
Tina Podlodowski, who successfully ran for a seat on Seattle’s City Council in 1995 and is currently running for secretary of state of Washington, has experienced many of these challenges firsthand. And she adds to the list the double standards that plague female candidates trying to win over the voting populace.
“People will often support a male candidate they don’t necessarily like, because they find him to be qualified,” she says. “For people to support a female candidate, they need to both like her and find her qualified, which generally means over-qualified.”
A study from Iowa State University backs up her perceptions. It found that voters are far more lenient with male candidates who demonstrate incompetence. “The combination of a female candidate whose competence has been cast into doubt is such a potent combination of cues, that it can even trump voters’ party identification,” researchers said.
Podlodowski is no stranger to breaking gender barriers — she was one of the earliest female entrants into the tech world, and worked as a manager for Microsoft. Still, “people consistently question my management ability,” she says. “If a guy had my resume, people would assume he knows how to manage things.”
Forthright women also face pushback, Simon-Weisberg says, pointing characterizations of Hillary Clinton as shrill, as well as a few examples from her own campaign. “I’m a lawyer. I’m bossy. I tell you what I think. When I speak, I speak with authority. And I’m hearing the same rhetoric that’s said about Hillary — that I’m difficult.”
Turning the Tide
During her latest campaign, Podlodowski made a point of visiting all 39 counties in Washington state. “It was really important that people could look me in the eye and get a measure of me as a person,” she says. “Women have to go that extra mile to get in front of voters. You have to have listening skills, and you have to prove your qualifications — again and again and again.”
Simon-Weisberg sought an edge by soliciting the counsel of female mentors. “I found it really helpful that there were women I was able to reach out to when I needed to keep perspective. Mentors are important in every other aspect of life — it’s really true when you run for office.”
To recruit more female candidates, Cutraro says She Should Run offers a variety of programs, including incubators, information seminars and referral programs. Kraal says Emily’s List is similarly committed to “moving the dial in terms of the number of women elected to state legislative bodies” through recruitment, campaign support and research efforts.
Kraal has found that hyper-local openings — think school boards or roles managing local utilities — tend to be particularly appealing to women candidates. Focusing on these local positions is not only easier for women just starting out; it also creates a vital pipeline for women in politics, she says. “More often than not, what’s going to rise up is our next wave of leaders in D.C. I think we’re all recognizing that all of it matters, from the school board up to the presidency.”
“We will be a smarter society when women have equal access to decision-making.” – Erin Loos Cutraro, She Should RunWhy it Matters
Podlodowski’s family motto, “Do well at school and work, and give back to the community,” inspired her to run for office for the first time. And through years of political involvement, her desire to help as many people as possible has grown. But real impact, she says, is impossible to achieve without more female representation in government.
“We need all voices in there crafting the best solutions,” she says, arguing that “women running for office are more in touch with what’s happening on the ground in a community. Women are looking for solutions in a better way, and are more willing to reach across the aisle for the sake of getting a good outcome for everyone.”
Women also produce results. A study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Chicago found that women deliver more federal funding to the districts they represent, and also sponsor more bills than their male colleagues.
“We will be a smarter society when women have equal access to decision-making,” Cutraro says. “I don’t think it’s possible to solve the increasingly complicated issues we face as a nation unless we have all of the talent this country has to offer at the decision-making table,” she explains. “It is in our interest — not just women’s interest, but women’s and men’s — to encourage diversity in governing bodies.”
It’s not that women aren’t interested in politics. Since the 1970s, they have consistently turned out to vote in larger numbers than men. Kraal says that, if women are going to play such a significant role in deciding who gets elected, “we should also be representing those deciders at the table.”
But the first step is getting more women on the ballot — a drive that, Simon-Weisberg says, ultimately must come from within. “You’re the one who has to do the work, to make the choices and the sacrifices. You have to decide for yourself to run. Don’t expect people to beg you to do this really hard thing,” she says. “Women need to step up and make a difference.”