In California, women won the right to vote in 1911. More than a hundred years later, one would expect women would have ascended into elected office in equal measure to their male peers. This is not the case. While women comprise more than 50 percent of the state, we only make up about 25 percent of the state Legislature. This is down from 2005, when the number was 31 percent. The federal level is no better, with only 34 percent of the Congress being women, which is down from 2005 as well. And while we tell our little girls they can grow up to be president one day, we have yet to see any little girl make that dream a reality.
The issues we care about and the issues that affect us and our families are being influenced and decided by our elected leaders. It is essential that women be at the decision-making table. Women comprise nearly half of all workers, and mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of families. In addition, women are doing the bulk of care for aging parents while still doing the majority of the childrearing and the housework. We do all of this while making 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. This challenging situation might explain why we haven’t been able to rise in the political realm. It is also why we must be a voice in the political discussions that affect our lives.
Equal representation is the right thing to do in a just and fair society, but it’s so much more than that. Research confirms that the presence of women in governing bodies leads to more comprehensive polices, greater transparency, and a focus on getting things done. In surveys of state legislators, women reported that their top motivation to run for office was a concern about public policy issues. The top motivation for male legislators, however, was a long-standing desire to be involved in politics. As a result, women come into office with a greater desire for policy achievements rather than personal political wins.
Paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, quality child care, health care, and comprehensive early childhood education programs are all policies that we have to do better on. It is of particular concern that we have leaders with a vested interest in future generations with the growing emergency of climate change. As Sen. Barbara Boxer says, “The best way for us to fight back when our health, our lives, our families, and our communities are all at stake is to elect more women.” These are not women’s issues, these are the issues that affect every one of us in this state. This unequal representation makes it less likely that the Legislature will focus on the issues that are important to the majority of Californians.
Women are gaining in many ways, with women outpacing men in college enrollment. But after college, we seem to lose those gains in the political sphere. Cal Poly Public Policy student Parmita Choudhury notes, “Though we see women breaking through the toughest glass ceilings, our government still does not accurately reflect our female population. The diversity in our representation is crucial as it better reflects our society and their interests.” So how can we do better?
We need a comprehensive strategy that allows women and girls to see themselves in the public space, and one that supports them while they do it.
1. Women need to know how important it is to hear their voice in the political arena. Women need to understand the important role they can play in creating the polices that support the issues they care about.
2. Women need to be recruited and trained. Women tend to believe that they do not have the skills or qualifications to be in elected office. In addition, they have to be asked on average seven times to run for office before they will consider it.
3. Show her the money. Women are not financially supported to the extent men are, and often other women do not support female candidates. So send a check to your favorite woman leader.
4. Elected leaders need to reach out to local women to extend a hand up to mentor and empower others to join their ranks. In addition, the political parties would do well to reach out and support women to ensure that the pipeline is full of great candidates.
5. At the rate we are going, it will take about 500 years for women to achieve parity. We can no longer accept the glacial pace of voluntary change. We need a Title IX for the electoral process. Almost half the countries in the world have quotas for women in office, and this has led to a rapid increase in representation. The United States is 79th in the world in terms of female representation, behind countries like Rwanda, Bangladesh, and Iraq. We need a system that ensures that women will have an equal role in public decision making.
Certainly not all women make great leaders. I’m sure we can all think of a few who we wish would have not found their way to the ballot. But it is past time to see more women there. I can tell you from experience how great it is to fill in the bubble next to your own name. So I’ll tell you again: You should run for office, and when you, do run like a girl!
Heidi Harmon of San Luis Obispo is a force of nature. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.