By Erin Loos Cutraro
When’s the last time you felt fired up by a female politician? It might have been from a news story you read online. Or a powerful debate answer. Or a tweet. Whether you lean right or left, there are so many women in office, inspiring and making headlines every day.
But the floodgates still aren’t wide open for women in politics. Women are half of the people in the country, yet they hold less than a third of the 500,000 elected offices nationwide. And though white men make up only 30 percent of the population, they occupy a whopping 62 percent of elected officials, from town council to Congress, according to stats from the Reflective Democracy Campaign (RDC).
When women run, they win at the same rate as men. No, the problem isn’t getting women to win. It’s that they don’t see themselves running for office to begin with.
As founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to increase the number of women considering a run for public office, I’m on a mission to change that. Our aim is to help women take the first step and imagine what a political run might look like for them. Of the thousands of women exploring a run for office, our data shows that only 13 percent move all the way from considering a political future to actually filing the requisite paperwork.
What’s keeping women from running? Lots. Recent She Should Run stats show that there are still significant barriers standing in the way.
For starters, women have historically been less likely to be encouraged and recruited to run for office, at every level — and the hurdles become even bigger for women of color, LGBTQ+ women, religious minorities, and disabled women. And men who are already in office are more likely to encourage other men to run, which helps perpetuate the imbalance. It doesn’t stop there. Even moms and dads, though they might not intend to be, are biased: Parents are about one-third more likely to encourage a son to run for office than they would a daughter, found researchers from American University in Washington, D.C.
Messages even well-meaning family, friends, and the media direct toward women and girls make it tougher, too. Girls are often raised to be nice and to diffuse scenarios that are complicated or aggressive. Because of this, women tend to question their qualifications when it comes to leadership roles.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to think they’re the best man for the job, no matter what that job is. When men see themselves represented as heavily in office as they do, they naturally believe they have a place in that role.
Plus, research has shown that women take fewer risks than men, partially because they tend to expect negative outcomes. And that mindset makes sense. Remember the backlash Greta Thunberg received for speaking out about the climate crisis? Or, Serena Williams for expressing emotion at the U.S. Open? Or Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for testifying in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, given her sexual misconduct allegations against him? The takeaway: If you use your voice, be prepared to have the most powerful leaders in the world attack you. No matter your age or social status, that’s terrifying.
But these barriers don’t have to stop us in our tracks. There are so many ways people of all gender identities can help elevate female candidates — even if you’re not old enough to run for public office or even vote yet.
Look at the representation in your community and if you don’t like what you see, volunteer for someone on a campaign that’s in step with your ideals. Being informed is a piece of it, but it is not enough. You have to show up and volunteer. You have to start the conversations. No one is going to do it for you — but people will have your back when you do.
We owe it to the trailblazers who came before us, like Representatives Jeannette Pickering Rankin and Hattie Caraway, who broke down barriers for women in Congress. And Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress and the first to seek the nomination for president as a major-party candidate. And the brave women who continue to make history today, like Representatives Deb Haaland, Elise Stefanik, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As the ballot narrows for the U.S. presidency, we must continue to resist, persist, and carry this torch forward for these women who demanded a place for women in leadership, for our own daughters and the generations of women to follow.
From roles in your school and city all the way up to the highest office in the land, there’s no time like right now to push for change. So sign a petition or organize a rally. Run for office yourself. Or if you’ve got a friend interested in running, encourage her to go for it.
Because the only way she'll win is if she shows up.
Erin Loos Cutraro is the Founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit promoting leadership and encouraging women from all walks of life to run for public office. Since its founding in 2011, more than 26,000 women have been encouraged to run for office through She Should Run’s efforts, and over 18,000 women have indicated they are preparing for a future through She Should Run’s flagship program, the Incubator.