Turning the Year of the Woman Into Parity

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.

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Ami Wazlawik

We should celebrate, but not be satisfied, with these increases in women’s leadership in politics.

I do think that the lack of women running for public office is about much more than just the perceived lack of work/life balance. Jennifer Lawless, Associate Professor of Government at American University, and Richard Fox, Associate Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University, authored a report, released earlier this year, that examined the reasons why women don’t run for office, despite the fact that they are just as likely as men to win when they do run. There are a number of factors in play, including caregiving responsibilities, that contribute to what the authors call the “ambition gap” between men and women:

  • Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates
  • Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s candidacies aggravated women’s perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena
  • Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office
  • Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts
  • Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns
  • Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone

Obviously the impact of each of these factors varies from person to person, but it’s important to consider the multitude of factors that influence women in their decision to run or not run for office.

While I agree that quality of leadership is important, the percentage of women in Congress DOES make a big difference. The report mentioned above cites a number of resources, showing that there are differences between men and women re: what issues they prioritize, how they vote, and political engagement/confidence of constituents. Given these findings, a higher percentage of women in Congress would likely mean more discussion of issues that are important to women, more votes for policies that impact women’s lives, etc.

David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Kathleen!

You are absolutely corect. Women remain drastically under-represented at all levels of government compared to their the population and overall workforce participation rate in the private sector — which is still no bastion of gender equality, especially at the executive level and above.

We definitely need more women at all levels of government serving in greater leadership roles. The good news is that the trendline is moving in that direction and should continue. It’s mind boggling to me, for example, that male lawmakers are able to craft and implement legislation affecting women’s health and other women’s issues, largely without major input of women.

Nevertheless, we appear to be breaking new ground each election cycle. Hopefully, we will have a female President in the coming years. I think it’s just a matter of time. Did I hear someone say HILLARY?


Elizabeth Carlson Hurst

Great point about motherhood being akin to leadership training – it will be a turning point, long overdue, when Americans (or anyone) in the work place actually value its experience.

Samantha McFarland

I spent three years in Cheyenne, WY where women, especially mothers, are not looked upon as great leaders in the business realm. I do think that many women have a lot to offer. However, I don’t think we should blindly “pick” a woman over a man because of gender. One of the problems I see in our country is the abuse of gender, race, etc. People use those to create better statistics and to “even” the look of an organization. Why not pick the better person?

I am a mom. I am a woman. However, I don’t want a job because I am female or because of some quota or balance. I want to earn it. I want a job that I am the best qualified for. I think we would do much better as a country if we looked at the human – the person – the talent – the abilities. What will this person bring to the table.

All of that said, I am grateful to not be living in a society any longer that suppresses women and looks down upon those who want to pursue a career and a family. It is VERY possible to raise happy, healthy children and be successful. And I would totally agree with your point about motherhood teaching leadership skills. As a mother, I learned to separate discipline from emotion. If a child does something that requires discipline, it is not my fault. The discipline is to teach. Just as if an employee does something that requires discipline, it is not my fault, either. The consequences are based on the actions of the employee, not my reaction. So, yes, motherhood can help there.

Thanks for the article.

Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

It seems to me that the change of leadership styles for women is an evolutionary process. Having first entered the workforce in the 1980s, I saw female leaders striving to prove themselves in a man’s world, in many cases trying to be harder, tougher, more confrontational than their male colleagues. It is my hope that as our numbers increase in leadership roles, women will not feel the need to be more “manly” than their male counterparts. Speaking as a mother and a professional, I know motherhood encourages learning the art of compromise firsthand. This should be considered an asset for women leaders, not a liability.

Kathleen Schafer

I am glad that this post has spurred so many insightful and thoughtful responses–it adds depth and meaning to the discussion that could not have come in a single post from one person. And this is the spirit I look forward to more and more people, men and women leaders alike, bringing to our public bodies. Each person has something important to contribute and just because they do, doesn’t make me or anyone else less because of it. To the contrary, it makes the whole even better.

Robert budlong

Thanks Kathleen, this is a great Blog. I believe it is important to have more women and people of color in the higher ranks of politics, business, religion and so on. I have read all the comments and it is refreshing to see a lot of good dialog to propagate greater diversity in the upper echelons of the world. I have to agree that mothers seem to have the advantage in a work place. I have noticed that many women with children are much more capable in handling complex and sensitive situations over men. They have the right touch.

I would like to offer, that many like the notion that people should get positions on merit. However, if women and people of color hold to this notion, then they will always be at a disadvantaged in a system where white men have traditionally given a “leg up” for their white male colleagues (and will continue to do so) whether they are qualified or not. And after they are in, they’ll fake till they make it. Not to mention, that the educational and mentoring opportunities have favored white men for the past 300 years or so. Women have just as much right as anyone else to those opportunities.

Kathleen Schafer

Ultimately, as our organizations reflect the values of all its customers or clients, they become healthier. The way this happens is for engaged employees to bring those values to their work each day and to be leaders–to put their love in action–and ensure that the values they hold are respected and reflected in the cultural norms. When we fear for our jobs, our health care, whatever, we allow others to take the power that rightfully exists in each of us.