Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

Tell a woman to run for D.C. council!

February 17, 2011 - 03:45 PM
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In the Washington City Paper this week, Alan Suderman wonders why D.C. has "only three female councilmembers on a 13-member legislative body," and why, in the current special election for at-large councilmember, there are "no serious women contenders anywhere to be found."

Suderman interviews two of the three sitting female councilmembers for their insights into the gender disparity. "Women are turned off by nasty politics. And we've had a good dose of that lately," Ward 4's Muriel Bowser submitted. Added Ward 7's Yvette Alexander: "When I was running, a lot of women even stated to me that they didn’t feel as confident voting for a woman than a man."

Ooh! Pick me!

I'll never tire of quoting the work of Jennifer Lawless, who has spent years interviewing thousands of men and women in the candidate "pipeline" on why they will—or won't—run for office. Lawless has identified a host of factors to explain why men seek office at greater rates than women do, from disparate domestic duties—"women are 12 times more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of household tasks"—to the lasting effects of sexism—"even women who think they are qualified to run for public office believe they need to be more qualified than men just to compete evenly." (Alexander's experience aside: Once women actually run for office, they generally have as good a chance as male candidates of winning the election).

A pretty significant cultural shift needs to occur before women are regarded equally in both the domestic sphere and the political stage. But Lawless' research has uncovered a handy shortcut to increased female participation in politics, and everyone can participate! According to Lawless, the more we encourage women to run for office, the more they will run:

Unlike men, well-positioned women potential candidates are significantly less likely than men to report being tapped to run for office. The accomplished and politically engaged women I spoke with were about twice as likely as men to never have had a political leader suggest they explore running for office.  . . . In fact, women I surveyed were one-third less likely than men to have been recruited—ever—to run for office from a party leader, elected official, or political activist.

But now let me turn to the good news. Potential candidates who receive the suggestion to run for office are more than four times as likely as those who receive no such support to think seriously about a candidacy. And women are just as likely as men to respond positively to recruitment messages. For many, recruitment from political leaders serves as the key ingredient in fomenting their thoughts of running. . . . Comments from women and men who have been recruited reflect how party support brings the promise of an organization that will work on behalf of a candidate. Statements from those who have not received political support for a candidacy demonstrate that, without encouragement, a political candidacy feels far less feasible. External support is important to potential candidates from all political parties and professional backgrounds. But women are significantly less likely than men to receive it.

People do not support women candidates at the rate they support male ones. Period. So if D.C. voters want more women in office, we need to tell them we want them. "Every time any of us runs across a woman who seems to fit the bill, we need to tell her—and we need to tell her more than once—that she should consider running for office," Lawless says. "If she needs to hear it 17 times before it sinks in, then we need to tell her 17 times." Suderman touches on this factor in his piece: "Alexander added that she and Bowser both won special elections to replace a male predecessor whose endorsement was key to winning." Encourage, support, and endorse more women candidates, and we'll get more women representatives. I'm looking at you, Marion.


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