Photo Courtesy of Running Start
Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women — an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed and how equality is created in societies. Global Citizen’s series, “Who Run The Gov? Girls!” chronicles the massive uptick in women running for office, regardless of political party, in the US and around the world, highlighting the candidates and the groups helping them to run, the challenges they face, advice & tips for running, and the results.
The world needs more women political leaders. Half the world’s population is female, but we certainly cannot say the same for its leaders.
Though the percentage of women in politics has more than doubled over the last 20 years, it still stands at 23%, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report, meaning we will see gender equality in political representation in about 82 years.
In the US, women’s representation is even lower — women account for just 19% of Congress and the country ranks 99th out of 193 countries for political representation equality, down from 52nd in 1997.
But women’s voices are needed in the political arena now more than ever as women’s rights and access to healthcare are repeatedly at the center of debate.
As Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told CNN, “If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.”
Her sentiments have been echoed by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“Just literally having 51 percent of women in Congress representing the diversity of our country: You would have different issues raised, different solutions being offered, you’d have less partisan bickering,” Gillibrand told New York Magazine.
But getting more women into politics is easier said than done. The task can seem daunting, especially for women.
So Global Citizen spoke to two political campaign veterans about what it takes for girls and women to get into politics. These are our top tips for girls who want to get into government.
Getting into politics isn’t just about power, it’s about having the power you need to address problems that affect your community and make real change.
“Go back to the problem that you care about solving and think local,” Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something — an organization that supports young, progressive people’s political bids — told Global Citizen.
“If you care about schools and education, consider school boards. If you care about climate change or reproductive health, look at your city council, you’d be surprised what kind of power city council has,” Litman continued. “If you’re into voting rights, think about state legislature.”
“It’s not rocket science.”
That’s what Susannah Wellford, founder of Running Start, wants you to know.
“You can absolutely teach yourself to be good at these skills,” she said.
Wellford created Running Start 10 years ago, after starting a non-partisan political action committee to help elect women under 40 to congress. But Wellford came to realize that the problem isn’t just getting women who are on the ballot elected, it’s that there aren’t enough women trying to get on the ballot in the first place.
So Running Start focuses on getting young women interested in politics, showing them that being a political leader is an option available to them, and then training them in skills like public-speaking to help them get there.
“What you really need to be a leader in politics is knowing how to be a great public speaker, being able to write a really great message that’s going to bring people to your side,” Wellford told Global Citizen. “You need to feel comfortable asking people for something. You’re going to need to ask people for money and for their vote, you need to be fluid and practiced at promoting yourself in order to do that”
So if you’re thinking about running for public office, whether that’s student government or city council, you can start by honing these skills.
“Teach yourself those skills,” Wellford said. “Then if there’s an opportunity for you to actually step up, do it!”
“You shouldn’t wait,” Litman advises. “No one is going to ask you. I’m asking you.”
And you don’t have to delay until you are the “perfect candidate” either.
“If you ask the average guy if he thinks he could run for congress, he’s like ‘yea probably.’ Then if you ask the average woman, she’ll give you an answer that’s radically different.” Wellford told Global Citizen. “Even if you ask really accomplished women, they’re like ‘I think I have to go back to school for that’ or ‘I wouldn’t know enough about all the issues.’ ”
In an interview with New York Magazine, Sen. Gillibrand similarly said, “Women, we’re like, ‘Well, maybe after ten years of working …’ ” But quickly countered, “No. Just run for the office you want to run for and run on the issue you want to fix.”
Which brings us to our next point…
Women consistently underestimate their own qualifications. One survey found that 43% of women believed they were not at all qualified or only somewhat qualified to run for public office. When men with similar credentials were asked the same question, 73% said they felt qualified or very qualified.
“No mediocre dude would ever second guess his qualifications for office and neither should any girl,” Litman told Global Citizen.
“It’s not entitled, or over-confident, or fraudulent [for girls and women] to say I deserve to be in the room, I deserve to run for office, I deserve to be on the ballot — the way that you are qualified to do it, is by doing it,” the former Hillary Clinton staffer said.
This is not okay. As a female in politics I am often criticized for my looks. We should be working to empower women. https://t.co/sV6WDE0EUD— Lynn Jenkins (@RepLynnJenkins) June 29, 2017
The harsh reality, Litman said, is that “women need to have thicker skin” than men when running for public office.
Nearly 40% of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said they believe women are held to higher standards than men when running for high political offices and that many Americans still aren’t ready to elect women to higher offices. According to the survey’s results, both men and women agree that these are the top two barriers to greater female political leadership, though women see higher standards as a substantially larger barrier to their success than men do.
“I can’t tell you how many times women who’ve won student elections have been subject to a re-count because people are like ‘no way, there’s no way that this woman won,’ ” Wellford shared.
“There’s a time to stand up and make a fuss about something that’s wrong, and there’s a time where it might be better for you to just let it slide,” Wellford said, recalling a lesson Hillary Clinton shared in her new book, What Happened.
When women behave the way men do, the responses they receive tend to be more negative than the responses men receive. Wellford explained that at Running Start, they teach girls and young women to negotiate for higher, fair compensation, even though interviewers might actually have a negative reaction to a woman’s negotiation because women should be able to advocate for what they deserve.
Women who speak up and speak out the same way men do might also be seen in a negative light as a result.
“A student wrote me the other day,” Wellford shared. “She’s a debater. And she said, ‘It’s terrible that in debate I have to choose between winning — which means being a little more demure and not speaking up as much — or insisting that my voice is heard because the men in debate talk over us all the time. Do I win the debate, or do I win a battle for women?’ ”
Earlier this year, California Sen. Kamala Harris was silenced during a Senate hearing, and criticized for being too direct and not courteous enough in the manner in which she posed questions to witnesses.
But sometimes it’s not about the battle, it’s about the war.
“You need to know that it’s out there and what the choices are, but it’s really going to be your choice, whether you stand up” and fight this battle or the next, Wellford said.
So how do you start fighting the battle and getting involved in government? Start showing up — and then keep showing up.
“You know they say like 80% of success is showing up, in politics that’s more than true, it’s being in the room and people knowing that they can count on you to be there,” she told Global Citizen. “That means showing up to the events where… go to your local parties’ meetings even if they’re boring or you even if you find them pointless, keep showing up,” she suggests.
“Talk to a couple folks, get to know a few people, but the important thing really and truly is just consistent presence.”
Volunteer at a soup kitchen or with a non-profit, Wellford suggests, so that you can see how “you have the power to directly affect something on a major level [in your community], even doing those micro things.”
“Run for student government, even if you don’t want to be president,” she added. “Get involved because it is one of the best training grounds for anybody that’s interested in politics because you get to try it all out in a safe space.”
Ideally, Wellford recommends getting a job or volunteering with a campaign or for an elected official so that you can see the system in action. Even go door to door, and introduce yourself to your community members. Tell them you’re interested in getting involved in local politics and want to get to know them and the issues they care about.
Start small and don’t forget you’re running to do something, not just to be something.
“Girls don’t see themselves as a person who can do this job, because they don’t see other women who are doing it — that’s the biggest hurdle,” Wellford said, noting that often, girls want to work in politics “behind-the-scenes” to solve problems, but don’t want to run for office.
Sen. Gillibrand told the New York Times that was inspired by her grandmother who was a rare female political figure in Albany, New York, at the time — but for many girls, women in politics are not visible.
But remember there are other girls and women out there like you. You’re not alone.
“There are women across the country who are thinking about jumping in and if they do it they’ll be joining an incredible network of women who will have their back,” Litman told Global Citizen.
“[Recognize] the barriers and that women in general feel the same way you do,” Wellford said. “But if all women feel this way we’re never going to get to that point of parity, so understand that these are barriers,” but they are surmountable.
“Just because you haven’t seen a woman do it before, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it,” Litman said. “Someone has to be the first.”
And that someone could be you.