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Parity in Politics—Why Women Don’t Want It

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, 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-know 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 Bachman as media and partisan targets fresh in their minds.

The answer to these challenges as espoused by numerous women’s groups is to train more women to run for office. From political “boot camps” like Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics Ready to Run program to the newly minted 50-50 in 2020 women’s groups throughout the country believe that if more women are trained to run for office they will. The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t work—just look at the last 20 years the article details as proof.

In 1992, I was a young political consultant determined to bring parity to politics having grounded my early political life working for a rising star of women leaders, Debbie Stabenow, now one of just 17 females Senators. During that election cycle and for many to come, I flew around the country training women, helping with their campaigns and hopeful that the efforts of so many women who tirelessly gave of themselves, and for a lot less money than our male counterparts, would bring us closer to parity.

Eight years later and 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 The George Washington University. The reason why women didn’t run were clearly researched then and not significantly different that the facts presented today. The answer two decades ago was to prepare women to run for office and 20 years later it has had little impact. Why?

The truth is that preparing women for the battle of politics is not the answer. Woman are not running for office because they are choosing to spend their time and energy in ways other than engaging in the senseless, and all too often futile, act of policy making in contemporary politics. No amount of preparation is going to change the pragmatic nature of women who will choose to focus their energy and attention on real world solutions, rather than engage in politics that rarely creates meaningful change and when it does at a very high personal cost to one’s quality of life.

In other words, politics is a very masculine game. Might makes right, the accumulation and wielding of power is rewarded and winners take all, hardly the environment to create meaningful solutions to societal challenges and enduring change for the betterment of the greater good. Which brings us full circle, as the literal and figurative “givers of life,” women value the investment of their time and want to see that it has meaning.

Caring for children, the underserved in the community and family members disproportionately falls into female hands, professionally and personally. Are women going to spend their time, seeking the approval of the old boys club, asking strangers for money and launching attack ads against political opponents or are they going to roll up their sleeves and find a better way to teach art in failing schools, cleanup a neighborhood park and make meals for those who wouldn’t otherwise eat?

True, better policies, more funding and compassionate policy-makers would make these endeavors easier, which leads to the white elephant in the room. For the most part, the women who do rise to the upper echelons of elective office have become so immerse in the pitched battle that they become more masculine than their male counterparts. While they may advocate for some women’s issues, their conduct only further perpetuates the authoritarian rein of our political system instead of changing the tone, nature and outcome of a system design to bring people down instead of build them up.

Is it any wonder that women truly interested in change eschew elective office? As a girl, I wanted to be the first women president. I dreamed of the job not because I wanted to live in a big house and tell people what to do, rather I wanted to see people lifted out of poverty, to be able pursue their passions and to live in safe, caring and happy communities. Perhaps a bit utopian and if given the choice between giving it up to fight political battles or to work on it each day in the way I lead my life, the latter choice is the obvious one for me. And given what I see in my classrooms, with my clients and in the statistics—I am not the only one choosing to lead by example instead of in elected office.

Kathleen Schafer is the founder the Leadership Connection (www.leadershipconnection.com) and the author of Living the Leadership Choice — A Guide to Changing Your Life and the World

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