Is the pipeline of women candidates for elections broken?

Despite a recent wave of female candidates, it is still very unlikely that women will run for office. If the status quo is to change, the strategy for building a pool of women ready to run must change.

The women’s march in New York on October 17, 2020 denounced the actions of Donald Trump to replace a Supreme Court justice before the election. Trump’s victory has inspired a new generation of women to run for elected office, but women’s representation remains low. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Despite the efforts of dozens of organizations and the investment of millions of dollars from donors over the decades to convince more women to run for political office, the last report by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox’s Citizen Political Ambition Study finds that the political ambition gap between men and women interested in running for office is virtually unchanged in the 20 years since the first study. The pipeline of women interested in running for office remains broken. If there is to be further progress in closing the gender gap in political leadership, something has to change.

Despite the highly touted Woman’s Years in 2018 and 2020, women’s representation in elected office in the United States remains low. Women still make up less than a quarter of the US Senate and less than a third of the House of Representatives. Women make up just under a third of all state legislators and there are still only nine female governors.

The recent wave of female applications gives the misleading impression that a major change is afoot. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, 643 women ran for Congress in 2020 (60 for the Senate, 583 for the House) – a record number. The problem is that the record is still less than 30% of all major party candidates in the House and less than a quarter of candidates in the Senate. To close the gender gap in elected office, 30% is not enough at all.

The thing is, women are still very unlikely to run or plan to run. The percentage of women who were actually considering running for office decreases from 2011 to 2021, according to Fox and Lawless, despite the rise of prominent women on both sides of the aisle into elective office. For years campaigners have speculated that more female role models in elected office would make a difference. Apparently not.

There are many reasons why women candidates are running in fewer numbers; women often criticize their own diplomas and qualifications and exclude themselves. There is a lack of encouragement from other elected officials and activists, and public messaging. And, it is clear that the proliferation of sexist attacks on women candidates both during the election campaign and once in office has contributed to keeping women on the sidelines. And young women who have documented most of their lives in photos, videos and on social media, can look to the example of former Rep. Katie Hill – who had nude photos of her published in the tabloids. without her consent – and the way old posts are used to attack women in the public eye and decide it’s just not worth it.

The percentage of women who planned to run for office actually declined from 2011 to 2021, despite an increase in the number of leading women on both sides of the aisle in elected office.

Growing political pessimism is also concerning. In the Harvard Youth Survey, Fall 2021, one-third of young men and one-third of young women say they are less politically engaged than their parents, and the same percentage consider themselves politically engaged or active. Millennials and Generation Z were more concerned about the economy and their ability to pay bills and housing than the population as a whole. AIT September 2021 Survey found that only 35% of 18-29 year olds were highly motivated to participate in 2022. A YWCA survey found that only 21% of Gen Zers are motivated to vote in 2022, although a majority feel the election will impact their lives.

Fundamentally, if the status quo is to change, the strategy for building a pool of women ready to run must change, and leading the way towards positive engagement is essential. In the seven years that All In Together has conducted civic education and community leadership trainings across the country, we have learned valuable lessons.

1. Make civic engagement easy, fun and accessible

First, the pipeline must expand to encompass voters, volunteers, organizers, activists and staff. In other words, we need to show more women that political participation is a pathway to positive change. It can be uplifting and inspiring to come forward and speak out. If women disengage from politics at an early stage, we will never encourage them to consider running for office. We need to make civic engagement easier and more fun and political education more easily accessible. We also need to make it sustainable and accessible to people with limited time.

2. Empower All Women to engage in the political process

Second, we need to recognize that we need women on both sides of the aisle, and that many women don’t fit neatly into any particular political ideology. To truly achieve parity, we must empower all women to engage in the political process, regardless of which party or ideology they conform to or not.

3. Speak up when sexism undermines women’s leadership

Third, we must seriously challenge, expose and disrupt the sexist social media attack machine that disproportionately targets women. It’s an unacceptable by-product of the social media era that continues to undermine women’s leadership.

4. Remember the long game

Finally, you have to invest for the long term. We all have a role to play in encouraging and supporting the women around us to stand up and speak out at all levels. At AIT, our broad definition of civic engagement and our willingness to engage across differences has allowed us to educate and engage hundreds of thousands of women across America – and yes, some showed up and won. Equally important, many have changed their minds and are now committed civic activists who plan to run in the future or actively support women who do.

For the status quo on gender representation to change, it’s time to follow the data and take seriously the range of challenges and opportunities available to us in getting women to come forward.

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