How to get more women to run for public office

Clinton's nomination helps, but barriers remain
How to get more women to run for public office

Hillary Clinton took the stage on June 7 and, while making history as the first female nominee for president of a major political party, dedicated her achievement to scores of women who have fought for equal rights.

“Tonight’s victory is not about one person,” Clinton said. “It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”

Many political observers believe Clinton’s candidacy has broken the proverbial “glass ceiling” for women in politics, creating an opening for many more to follow. But a study done in Wisconsin about women entering local politics tells another story: Women simply see too many barriers to run for public office.

The survey by the UW Extension’s Local Government Center asked current county board members and a select group of “potential elected officials” (chosen by Extension agents and other local leaders) about the qualifications needed to hold public office and the barriers to running.

At first, the results showed that potential candidates identified barriers as being much higher than the current elected officials did. Fifty-eight percent of potential candidates saw asking for campaign funds as a barrier while only 14 percent of current supervisors saw that as a barrier.

But then they found the gender gap.

Of 30 potential barriers to running for office, 25 of them were identified as a bigger issue for women than men.
How to get more women to run for public office

“I thought, maybe none of them are humongous barriers for women, but when you add up 25 separate barriers, it’s like death from a thousand cuts,” says Jenny Erickson, a community resource development educator with UW Extension Sauk County, and one of the study’s authors. “It starts to be compounding. There are 25 things that are slowing me down here as opposed to a handful.”

Those barriers include concerns about possible reprisals to a lack of support.

“We started to see, I would say, a thread in some of those barriers where women saw them as [being] much larger than men [did] relating to self-confidence, and maybe unsure if they are the right person for the job,” Erickson says.

That carried over to thoughts on whether they’d be qualified to run. Men and women seemed to agree on what the qualifications should be, but only 60 percent of women said they were qualified for the job compared to 71 percent of men.

Extension researchers are addressing the issue by creating a toolkit to help recruit, train and encourage women to run for office.

“I think a big piece of this is you have to ask women to run and ask them in a different way than you ask men to run,” Erickson says, adding that women may have different paths to candidacy. She says recruitment efforts should include current female officeholders asking new women to be on the ballot.

Erickson says it’s inspiring that a woman for the first time has become the presidential nominee of a major political party.

“I think it’s a big deal and an awesome step forward,” she says. “But I think we also have to recognize that back at the local level there are … challenges.”