In the 21st century, it’s easy to assume that women have every career opportunity available to men. Surprisingly, there’s a significant area in which one gender is still being left behind. It’s where major decisions about our nation’s health care, education, and economy are made: the U.S. government.Currently, women make up only 17 per cent of Congress and 23 per cent of state legislatures. Women under 40 years of age are even more scarce. America, though a global leader in many respects, ranks 83rd among the world’s 189 nations with elected governments in terms of number of female officials.
What this means is that women’s voices are often unheard in the policy-making process, says Jessica Grounds, Executive Director of Running Start, a non-profit organisation that empowers young women to become political leaders, and Chair of the Board of the Women Under 40 Political Action Committee.
Grounds discusses why young professional women should contemplate a career in political office—starting now.
.Your non-profit is dedicated to preparing young women for political leadership and helping them get elected. Why is this so important?
At the end of the day, there are very few young women in elected office. Currently, women under 40 represent less than one per cent of Congress. Our gender and our demographic brings different experiences and issues to light, but we are nearly absent in politics. It’s important to have women at the table in the same numbers as men—or at least in higher numbers than we currently have. We need women there who can represent our viewpoint and be passionate advocates for other young women.
But more than that, women typically tend to wait to run for office until they are older, after they have kids or have advanced their career. But the younger a woman is when she is elected, the more opportunity she will have to build seniority, such as becoming a chair of a committee, a position where you can have an impact on what issues are raised. Getting involved early helps women have a stronger voice later on in their political careers..
Why do women make good political leaders?
From a historical and from a research-based perspective, women tend to lead more collaboratively and men tend to lead more hierarchically. Women also tend to approach conflict and interaction differently. Women aren’t better, but we are different in the way we approach things and the way we come to consensus, and that divergence is critical to making good policy.
What countries are succeeding in electing a large number of women?
Actually, Rwanda has the highest number of women in office of any country in the world. This is due to the fact that, after the genocide, when so many men were killed, women had to step up and lead the country. They are now looked at as a model all over Africa on how to lead nations back to prosperity and economic stability, because they lead and make decisions based on what is going to benefit the community as a whole, not just the people in power.
Who are some of the most admirable young women in American politics?
Kirsten Gillibrand , the New York senator who took over for Secretary Clinton, has been a strong advocate for electing young women into office. She also is a champion for the less fortunate in society, such as young mothers who can’t get care for their children under the current system.
Another example is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Congresswoman from South Florida,who fights for issues she knows are important for other women, such as creating legislation to protect children from sexual predators. She recently survived breast cancer and, after her experience, introduced legislation to help educate young women about the need for screening.
What qualifications do you need to run for office?
There are many types of skills needed, but most of them can be learned. Public speaking, for example, is something that a lot of people are scared of, but that can be taught. Another is message development: how do you create a message and why is it important to your platform? Media training, fundraising, and networking are basic skills you will need to build in order to run. But the main “qualification” is having confidence.
It sounds like you’re saying that anyone can do it! So why don’t more women run?
Research shows that women feel less qualified to run for office than men do.There was a study done on men and women who came from traditional career paths that often feed into political office, such as lawyers, political activists, and business leaders. They were asked “Have you ever thought about running for office?” and “If not, why?” Women were one third less likely than men to think about running, and the main reason was that they didn’t feel qualified. And this was compared to men with the same pedigree, from exactly the same background.
The problem is that women have not traditionally been in these leadership positions. We’re trying to mitigate that by showing women that political office is a potential career path and that they are just as qualified to run as men are.
What is the biggest challenge facing women who want to run for office?
There are four key issues that women candidates experience. First, women are still faced with challenges to their credibility, especially on major issues such as the War on Terror or the economy. There is still a gender bias, and men are seen as better suited to deal with these issues.
The second is fundraising. While women tend to support each other, they don’t tend to open up their pocketbooks for candidates. It takes a great deal of funding to run for office, and if your peer group is not giving, it’s a big issue.
Next, young female candidates get slammed for inexperience, while their young male counterparts are seen as ambitious and assertive. Finally, there’s an enormous media bias in the way women are depicted in the news. There is much more commentary on her appearance—such as what she is wearing—than on the substance of her ideas.
That said, what advice do you have for women who are thinking about running?
Go for it! Really, the most important thing is to have confidence and to know you can do it.
After that, figure out where you want to run. And run for the office that you want to be in. A lot of times people think they need to start small and then work their way up. But my advice is to run for the office that you are really interested in, and then figure out what kind of qualifications and knowledge you need to be in that role. Figure out who the political players are locally, who’s involved in the decision making. Get to know them, network with them. Get to know what issues are happening in the area—whether it’s immigration, economic issues, crime.
Then, find someone who is going to help you develop a really strong campaign by hiring a consultant or a campaign manager who’s done it before and can help you. You want to start planning at least two years in advance of the time you want to run.
You inspire other young women to run for office. Are you planning to run yourself?
I definitely think about it. One of the reasons I do this work is because I want to show people that women are just as capable of being effective leaders as men. We need to have much more representative leadership in terms of gender in many fields, but I see politics as a huge place for impact in our country. I think that’s where I can have the biggest influence right now, so I’m focusing my energy there. But I definitely have an interest in running.
Interview and article authored by Adrian Granzella Larssen, a contributing writer for Pretty Young Professional and a marketing communications expert. Adrian can be followed on Twitter @adriangranzella
Running Start is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation which aims to give young women the “running start” they need to achieve greater power and presence in American politics. For more information or to attend a program, visit www.runningstartonline.org.
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