Two decades ago a record number of women were elected to our nation’s highest legislative offices. In 1992, California became the first state to send two women Senators to Washington; they were joined by two other newcomers to triple the number of women serving in the Senate to a whopping six! Those yearning for a shift in our legislative bodies to reflect our population were buoyed by these victories and an energetic group of female political consultants logged tens of thousands of miles crisscrossing the country, training women to run for public office in hopes of changing the face of Washington.
Twenty years later, 20 women will be sworn into the 113th Congress as Senators and a record setting 77 (or more) women in the House of Representatives. While a milestone on the road of progress, is 20 percent representation something to be celebrated?
The United States remains one of a few industrialized nations never to have a female head of state and according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, ranks 78th in the world, tied with Turkmenistan, for women’s legislative representation. The number of women serving in state legislative bodies has stayed below 25 percent for the past twenty years and women serving at their state’s top executive remains below 15 percent. While more women winning is laudable, why has parity in elected office remained a distant dream?
The root of the problem is the same as what many bemoan about our political system as a whole—it is a war zone that requires a constant battle mentality, hyper focus on raising money and leaves zero opportunity for a balanced life. Those who hope to survive are drawn into the morass and quickly become a part of the Beltway groupthink. Not surprisingly, smart, savvy young women are thinking twice about where they want to put their energy and talents and battling it out with uber-partisans is often not their first choice.
I taught political leadership at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management starting in 1996. Still basking in the glow of the Year of the Woman and Hillary Clinton’s commanding example as First Lady, the young women entering my classroom where focused and determined to conquer Capitol Hill, first as staffers and then to return to the homes to run for office. Interestingly as the years wore on, fewer and fewer female students expressed such aspirations, even in a program designed to create future political leaders, because they saw the reality of creating a balanced life and success in elected offices as mutually exclusive.
The phenomenon led me, along with a bright young women student, to conduct a study of attitudes on Capitol Hill toward women. It was unsettling to discover that more than 91 percent of Hill employees felt a woman who becomes a mother is less competent—a not so subtle acknowledgement that politics is hardball and requires exclusive focus. A man with a wife to care for his family is acceptable because, wink, wink, we know where his priorities are and for a woman, well, we know where hers are too. For the remarkable women sitting in my leadership classes they not only got it, they were happy to acknowledge late nights battling partisan enemies was no comparison to raising happy, healthy children.
As I have watched several of the best and brightest of my female students becoming mothers, I have savored their bold choice. They followed their hearts and they have continued with careers creating change in their communities. They are using their talents in every facet of their lives rather than choosing to singularly focus on politics. While the mudslinging continues, they are committed to create real world results in their homes and neighborhoods.
This is the leadership that is needed throughout our political system—to transform the mentality of winning at all costs into sensible and pragmatic progress. We need the women who have made the choice to enter Congress to bring with them their balanced leadership approach and not to fall prey to boys-club mentality that perpetuates might-makes-right attitudes that keep so many promising women away from elective office. Anyone familiar with Capitol Hill knows that some of the most notorious Members are the women who tout their gender for electoral support and then turn their back on their female staff when it comes to shifting a political system that caters to masculine mores.
In the end, it is not the percentage of women serving in our elected bodies that will make the difference, it is the quality of their leadership. Everywhere we look for successful leaders, we find those, both male and female, who are able to embrace a broad-spectrum of qualities, which are authentic and are able to create diverse teams structured to create real results. These are not the qualities of divide and conquer, they are values-driven actions rooted in respect for each individual and the desire to allow every person to bring their best to the table.
Ask anyone with has spent time with children which of these approaches work best—command and control or love and allowance. Effective leaders respect a broad spectrum of talents and understand how best to use them to achieve the group’s goal. I have no doubt that my former students, now fantastic mothers, are experiencing some of the best leadership training available. I hope that the women serving in Congress will keep them in mind and create an atmosphere where those true leadership qualities are valued and respected. It is the only way parity will happen and these promising leaders will run for office.