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Why Women Aren't Taking Over Congress After All

Twenty years of training women to run -- why so little to show for it? Because it's still the guys' game.

Photo Credit: domesticat


Marking the 20-year anniversary of the Year of the Woman, Karen Tumulty’s front-page Washington Post article details the never-ending challenges of gender parity in American politics. While an informative piece about the United States’ 78th world ranking in woman’s representation in national legislatures (we're tied with Turkmenistan, for those keeping track), it reflects a flawed conventional wisdom about why more women don’t run for and win elected office.  

In discussing why more women are not politically engaged, many  well-known facts were listed:

  • Women often wait until later in their careers and lives to run for office, making it a challenge to rise through the ranks to high office;

  • Many women wait to be asked to run, instead of initiating a political campaign, often questioning their credentials and qualifications more so than their male-counterparts;

  • Often women feel that the electorate is biased against women candidates, with high-profile examples of Clinton, Palin, Pelosi and Bachmann as media and partisan targets fresh in their mind.

The answer to these challenges, according to numerous women’s groups, is to train more women to run for office. The premise behind countless political “boot camps” -- like the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics' Ready to Run program, and the newly minted 50-50 in 2020 women’s groups throughout the country -- is that if more women are prepared to run for office, the numbers will change.

The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t work. The history of the past 20 years proves this clearly.

In 1992, as a young political consultant determined to bring parity to politics, I grounded my early political life working for Debbie Stabenow, a rising star who is now one of just 17 female senators. During that election cycle and for many to come, I flew around the country working with women on their campaigns, in the hope that by joining the efforts of so many women who tirelessly gave of themselves (and for a lot less money than our male counterparts), I could help bring us closer to gender parity in government.

Eight years later, with hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles behind me, I examined the challenge of woman in politics as I created a leadership course at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. That's when I realized that the reasons women didn't run weren't as well understood as we thought. Twenty years on, we've had nowhere near the impact we'd hoped for. Why?

The truth is that preparing women for the battle of politics is not the answer. That's because there's more to surviving on the brutal political landscape than entering and winning elections. It turns out that women are not running for office because too many of them view political engagement as senseless, and all too often futile. We tend to be pragmatic about this; talented women will look at the way policy gets made and decide that there are better ways to leverage their time and energy. No amount of preparation is going to dissuade smart women from focusing their energy and attention on real world solutions, rather than engage with a political system that exacts a very high personal cost while only very rarely creating meaningful change.

In other words, politics is still played by rules that were set up by men, and give the advantage to the way men play. Might makes right. The accumulation and wielding of power is rewarded. Winners take all. This environment actually works against people who want to find innovative and meaningful solutions to societal challenges, and create enduring change for the betterment of the greater good. 

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