Why is There a Lack of Women in Politics?

A look at why few women run for elected office, why it matters – and what can be done about it.

Debbie Walsh, Director of The Center For American Women And Politics at Rutgers University

Women comprise more than half of the U.S. population, yet they continue to lag far behind men in elected office. They make up only 19 percent of Congress and five of the 50 U.S. governors.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, spoke with Regions about why so few women run for elected office, the benefits of more female representation and how to encourage more women to run.

Q: Tell us about your organization.

Walsh: We were founded in 1971 as the first university-based research center focused on the relationship between women and American politics. There was growing belief at the time that we needed more women inside powerful institutions, from state legislatures to city councils to Congress. As a nonpartisan organization, our mission is to empower women to participate more fully in the political process while also studying how women participate, the impact they have, who they are and how they get there.

Q: Why do women continue to have such low representation in U.S. politics?

Walsh: First, many women don’t see themselves as qualified to run — so there’s a self-confidence issue. We also know that many women won’t run for office unless they’re asked by someone else. Men in politics — and it’s not a malicious thing — tend to bring other men along with them and then ask those men to run. But there’s also the issue of why: Men often run for office because they want a career in politics; women run because they care passionately about a particular issue, whether that’s fixing a dangerous traffic intersection in their community, reforming education or changing tax policy. Women often first turn to what’s called ‘workaround government’ and try to solve problems by, say, volunteering or starting a nonprofit. When they do finally run for office, it’s because they realize that only elected officials can achieve the systemic change they want.

Q: Why does electing more women to office make a difference?

Walsh: Our research shows that women bring different life experiences and perspectives with them to office. They change not only the content of the political debate, but they also change the level of discourse. We’ve found that women are more likely than men to compromise and more willing to have conversations with people they disagree with. They open up the political process. We’re at an unprecedented time of political polarization in Washington, and women have led much of the compromise. During the 2013 debt-ceiling crisis in Congress, for example, it was the women — senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) — who were credited with reaching across the aisle and making a deal. In Alabama, two female U.S. representatives, Terri Sewell and Martha Roby, one a Democrat and one a Republican, are friends and have lunch together regularly. They probably don’t agree on much policy-wise. But at this moment in time, having two members of Congress from opposing parties who are friends is pretty unheard of.

Q: Some polls show that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic frontrunner if she enters the 2016 presidential race. Would her nomination help promote the role of women in U.S. politics?

Walsh: We are still far away from that election, so time will tell. But many other countries already have elected a woman as head of state. The United States has been ranked 91st in the world for electing women to our national legislature. The number-one country, interestingly, is Rwanda. Some of the most powerful elected officials in the world right now are women — certainly Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is among them. So Clinton’s nomination to the Democratic ticket would not only send a powerful message to girls and women, but it could also send a powerful message to the rest of the world that we’re catching up.

The U.S. has been ranked 91st in the world for electing women to our national legislature.

Q: What can be done to encourage more women to run for public office?

Walsh: We have several programs dedicated to this goal. Our Teach a Girl to Lead™ initiative, for example, aims to make women’s public leadership more visible to the next generation by bringing female leaders into the classroom. We want girls thinking they can be president, but we also want boys growing up believing that politicians can look like their mothers, not only their fathers. I also think today’s political parties must do more to encourage women to run for office. It has to be a priority, not an afterthought.

Q: Are there things readers of Insights can do to encourage more women to run?

Walsh: Definitely. I encourage everyone to think about the women they know who would make good political candidates and leaders. Ask these women to run for office, and then go out and campaign for them — knock on doors, write a check. Women should also consider running themselves, whether for the school board, a local council, state legislature or Congress. If there are issues in your community that you care about, one of the most powerful ways you can make a difference is by being in office.


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