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What Women Want Isn't to Run for Office (But It Can Be)

I ruled out the possibility of running for office early on in life. I assumed that being a politician would make it difficult to reconcile my desire for a family and a career; that politics themselves were too ineffective and messy for me to be able to make a substantial contribution; and that my hypothetical opponents and voters alike would count me out because I was a woman. And so I counted myself out before they could.

At a recent event at New America, however, my assumptions about women were called into question, both as political candidates and as a monolithic constituency.

First, though, American University's Jennifer Lawless spoke about her upcoming research, which confirmed my suspicion: The gender gap in political ambition and politics are stark. Women are a third less likely than men to consider running, and are less often approached, irrespective of their qualifications (for more on why, see here). Because women have graduated at higher rates than men for the last 30 years, the reality is that women outnumber men in universities and across professional fields. And yet, more-qualified women are less likely to consider running for office than much-less qualified men.

So how do we inspire such qualified women to run? We challenge the—my—assumptions.

Kate Black of EMILY's List and Marya Stark of Emerge America demystified what it means to run. Politics is not just a matter of running for Congress—the vast majority of policy-making happens at the state and local levels. Job issues and levels of commitment vary widely; the level of responsibility and scrutiny a Rhode Island dog-catcher faces is far from that of Secretary Hillary Clinton.

At every level, though, women can’t win if they don’t get recruited, consider running, and place their names on the ballot. To that end, EMILY’s list, Empower Women, and Emerge America work to inspire women to run, train them in campaigning and leadership, and provide them with political networks and financing. In other words, they provide the professional support necessary so that when positions become available, women are ready to step in.

They do so because, if supported, politics can be (contrary to another of my assumptions) livable. Of course, politicians need family, friends, and policies that help them juggle work and family. However, the challenges politicians face are not unlike the challenges women face in other professions: There isn’t enough (or equal) income and caregiving support. But this is part of why women need to run: To make the voice of women and families heard, and to have influence both in making politics a more livable occupation and in leveling the playing field for women and families more broadly. Politicians such as Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) exemplify this tension—that of a lawyer and young mother of two, dedicated to child safety, caregiving, and economic security issues.

Because, as frustrating as politics may seem, qualified women need to run. Though women aren’t a monolithic constituency, most want politicians to address a cross-section of economic, social and justice policies, according to Holli Holliday, Campaign Director, Black Women’s Roundtable. Women want politicians to look at the intersectionality of issues, because what use is a living wage if our family members or friends are brutalized by the police? How can a single mother be expected to work if she can’t get support in caring for her child? How can a student afford to finish college if her parents are deported? As Mindy Finn—former strategist to Mitt Romney and George W. Bush—reminded us, women aren't wedded to a particular solution. But as people who’ve experienced these issues first-hand, we are best positioned to speak to those experiences and translate them into better policy.

Women shouldn’t be scared off as a voters or candidates, but embraced. Lawless’s upcoming book dispels the myths surrounding gender biases candidates face in the media and elsewhere. In evaluating thousands of elections and related media coverage, Lawless and Hayes found that party affiliation trumps gender when voters head to the polls, and the effect of gender is negligible. Gender is no longer a cue in the voting booth. This both means that women can’t take for granted the “women’s vote,” as Holliday’s work makes clear, but also that women are not necessarily disregarded simply because they are women. On the contrary: Women may have the potential to reach disenchanted voters by speaking about their experiences and connecting those experiences with policy reform—and to make real change by putting those reforms in place once elected.

I’m not throwing my hat into the proverbial ring just yet (I am busy, after all, in a job that works towards putting in place policy infrastructure that supports women and their families). I am, however, throwing myself into encouraging women to run, and supporting the women who do, provided they support policies that I feel will help other women do so. Including, maybe one day, me.


Alieza Durana is a senior policy analyst in the Better Life Lab at New America, where she researches and writes about barriers to social and income equality, especially at the intersection of work, gender, and social policy.