Women Seeking Executive Office Face Obstacles

Whoever said winning isn't everything never ran for governor.

In politics winners take all. And if the numbers are any indication -- only four occupy governors' seats in 2001 -- women gubernatorial candidates are not doing much of the taking.

A newly released report titled, Keys to the Governors Office: Unlock the Door, examines voters' complicated relationship with gender and executive leadership, and provides advice for women seeking their state's top job.

"The issue of solo executive leadership is so different for voters when they think about women," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist who contributed to the study.

With more than two-thirds of states holding a governor's race in 2002, analysis on the role gender plays in gubernatorial contests is a timely contribution.

Despite gains in Congress and state legislatures, the job of governor remains a largely male profession. While in 2001, women hold 14.5 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress and 22.4 percent of state legislative seats, only 18 women have served as governor in the 225-year history of the United States.

The study investigates why. Findings are based on national polling and focus groups, an analysis of 1998 exit polls, and in-depth interviews in the 10 states where women ran for governor in 1998. Research was conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Lake Snell Perry & Associates and the Republican polling firm of American Viewpoint, Inc., and the Democratic political consulting firm of Staton Hughes. The Boston-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation initiated and funded the study.

The report found voters remain skeptical of women in executive positions -- reluctant to leave women with the "last word." Female candidates were also held to higher standards than their male opponents.

"Even when voters assume a woman is qualified for the job in terms of prior experience, they question whether she would be tough enough to be a good executive," the report states. In order to assure voters that they are up to the job, the report recommends that female candidates balance "toughness" with a compassionate agenda.

A perceived lack of decisiveness was cited as one of the most difficult stereotypes women candidates must overcome. "Voters' definition of executive leadership is still skewed toward male traits," said Barbara Lee, President of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

Voters were more comfortable with women candidates who have held executive positions such as attorney general, lt. governor, big city mayor or head of a large corporation.

Women who exhibit leadership in policy areas such as finance, economic development and crime -- issues typically considered to be "men's issues" -- have a better chance of winning over skeptical voters, the report found.

"Women [must] credential themselves early on -- to talk about accomplishments, to talk about crisis management," Lake said.

Yet the credibility gap is not the only gender-based hurdle women face. When focus group participants were asked about marital status and family issues, the report found they were concerned female candidates with children might be "hindered by torn loyalties."

The catch-22 of gender politics appears to be that voting for women is habit forming. Voters in "women-exposed-states" such as New Jersey, New Hampshire and Arizona, where women candidates have previously run for statewide office, preferred a female to a male candidate by a three-point margin.

The key to the governor's mansion may be as simple as recruiting more women to try to open the door. And if the last two presidents are any indication, the door to the governor's mansion may open directly into the White House.

"Clearly if we want to get a woman president, having 50 women governors would expose voters to voting for that women executive," Lake said.

Deborah Barron is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Northwestern University in Chicago. Ms. Barron conducted interviews for this study in 1999.

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