Before listing the reasons for the under-representation of female politicians and suggesting solutions, I want to explain why it needs to be pointed out.
Per the 2012 U.S. Census, females comprise 50.2 percent of the U.S. population and 51.2 percent of Pennsylvania’s population. Women are equally qualified to perform the duties and responsibilities of positions in politics. Many women are passionate about certain women’s issues, and this can make them a powerful voice to advocate for those issues.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says women make up 17.8 percent of Pennsylvania’s state legislature, holding 45 of the 253 seats. In the 113th U.S. Congress, women hold 99, or 18.5 percent, of the 535 seats. Cumberland County has women in three of its 11 elected offices, or 27 percent.
Dr. Jennifer Lawless, Director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, appeared on C-Span Jan. 3. During the interview, she discussed the findings from her March 2013 study co-authored with Richard L. Fox titled, “Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The gender gap in young Americans’ political ambition.” The study surveyed college students, both male and female, aged 18-25. To view the interview, visit http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/ImpactofWom
Lawless said in the interview that women are significantly more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates, which is not the case. To the contrary, the research shows women’s electoral success, regardless of the position they seek, and fundraising prowess is equal to men.
According to Lawless and Fox, the main barrier to women running for office is self-doubt. They don’t see themselves as being as qualified as men to run for office. Another barrier is the self-assessed perception that women are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts. The advice that Lawless gives to counter this is to encourage young girls to participate in competitive sports and student government so they can learn it’s OK to compete, win and lose. Encouraging women to join the College Democrats and College Republicans clubs also shows promise.
Recruiting, grooming, and mentoring can also be provided along with encouragement to qualified females to run for elected office. This encouragement can come from a number of sources: parents, other relatives, teachers/coaches and friends. In their study, Fox and Lawless found that, “Although young women are less likely than young men ever to have considered running for office, they are just as likely as men to respond positively to encouragement to run. Early parental support for a political career, therefore, is a vital ingredient for closing the gender gap in political ambition.”
In the surveyed college group, occupation bias remains for both genders. Females are seen as best suited for nursing, teaching and being a secretary. Few people regularly encourage women to think of politics as a career option, thus fewer are likely to consider it. Whereas, men are commonly encouraged from a young age to think of politics as a viable career.
Political leaders looking to help close the gender gap can help by understanding that occupations typically associated with those in politics — business leaders, lawyers, political activists and educators — are not likely to be held by most women. In order to identify a larger pool of qualified women, leaders will need to reshape their typical stepping- stone viewfinders to be open to a more diverse occupation list.
Another consideration is women are still responsible for the majority of family tasks, which results in them being away from the traditional time frame exposure to the political career ladder. Therefore, women that may desire to enter the political arena are likely to be older than their male counterparts when deciding to do so.
Women supporting each other is important. Every time I see a women running for office, I get excited. Logically, however, my vote must go to the individual I believe to be the most qualified and best able to fulfill the duties of the office. Gender can’t be used as a trump card.
Theresa Myers is a Republican political activist who lives in Cumberland County. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her column appears Sundays.