Building Women’s Political Careers: Strengthening the Pipeline to Higher Office

Denise L. Baer, Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D.

May 7, 2014
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Major Findings and Recommendations for Action

The Achieving Parity Study conducted at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Funded by Hunt Alternatives Fund consisted of administering 45 interviews (36 in-depth and 9 brief interviews) with experienced candidates and officeholders and convening several focus groups (totaling 24 participants) with elected state legislators, young elected officials, and congressional staff members (a group from which federal office holders are often drawn) to investigate how women make the decision to run and how they develop their political careers, with a focus on seeking or achieving higher office. In some cases, focus group participants also responded to a shorter interview. All the interview and focus group participants were ensured confidentiality. All sessions, which occurred between June 2012 and January 2013, were transcribed and analyzed for common themes; in some cases mentions of common factors identified by the women interviewed were counted.

 

The recommended action steps summarized below are largely drawn from the responses of participants to a question about what they think it would take to double the number of women in higher office by 2022, a goal set by the Hunt Alternatives Fund’s Political Parity Project. The recommended action steps also include suggestions from the authors’ analysis of participants’ other responses and the existing literature.

 

Overview of Major Study Findings

The political pipeline whereby women campaign for and build long-term political careers is gendered and has significant gaps and barriers for women. The Achieving Parity Study finds this is the case for both established officials who began their careers as much as twenty to forty years ago and young women elected officials who started their careers within the last decade or less.

 

The money barrier for women candidates running for higher office has three major, distinct aspects – all of which are gendered. The first is learning how to ask. Women do express discomfort or reluctance, but this is one aspect that is overcome readily and early with training. The second aspect is developing a relationship with donors so that if you ask, they will respond. This requires personally meeting them or having an introduction or other connection that matters to both the potential donor and the candidate. The third aspect is having access to good call lists (reliable and untapped donors). This requires more support from the political parties and women’s organizations, as well as experienced officeholders or other power brokers who have developed these lists over time and will share them with selected candidates. The last two of these aspects are often described as sponsorship, in which a well-connected, experienced political leader provides moneyed connections and other substantial help to aspiring candidates. Some women candidates are “change” candidates and they find making these connections more difficult. Increasingly, running for higher office requires having or building a national network, because of the expense and sophistication of such campaigns. Change candidates can often make good use of these national networks.

 

Mentoring and sponsorship by women elected officials and other leaders as well as a broader use of networks and women’s caucuses are stressed as much needed tools to better support women elected officials who seek to become credentialed and positioned to run for higher offices. Political parties, in particular, were reported to be nearly absent in recruitment for women. Not only did 50-70 percent of those interviewed say they had never received a suggestion to run for higher office from political party leaders (51.4percent) and power brokers (71 percent), but political party leaders are also relatively rare as mentors or kitchen cabinet members. While public officials are the most common category of mentors or kitchen cabinet members mentioned, these are typically not current male elected officials or even party leaders. Instead, public officials are either female elected officials or former or appointed male elected officials. This suggests that what party support is received is primarily provided by individuals on their own initiative and not by the party organizations or current elected officials in a formal recruiting role. Women and feminists are the second most often reported mentor and the fourth most common kitchen cabinet member. But the need for more help from the women’s movement and women elected officials is stressed. In particular, study participants recommend opportunities for networking across levels of office holding to facilitate moving among levels. Most national networks for women officeholders are organized laterally; they are for women mayors, state legislators, or members of Congress. Thus they are static and they do not help women advance to higher levels.

 

Campaigning-while-female is relatively common: almost nine in ten Achieving Parity Study participants say women’s campaign experiences are different from those of men. It occurs where women receive inappropriate and sexist treatment not just from the media, but also from political groups, peers and colleagues, donors, and the parties. Campaigning-while-female includes a range of comments and behaviors from a focus on hair and clothes, to women’s role as mothers (suggesting mothers should not serve or should run for school board only), to sexual harassment. Although campaigning-while-female occasionally includes comments from constituents, constituents are not the major source. Sexual harassment by colleagues and donors, for example, is reported to be a problem.

 

Campaigning-while-female is separate and distinct from discrimination – instances where women candidates and elected officials receive fewer resources than is true of comparable men. Discrimination includes smaller donations, reduced party financial support, failure to provide promised party services, fewer opportunities to sponsor legislation, fewer speaking opportunities, having meetings refused or phone calls not returned. In some cases, women report being “bullied” by political party leaders, their peers, or other elected officeholders in an effort to dissuade them from running for or serving in higher offices.

 

Nearly three in four study participants say they have experienced discrimination in politics. And, of those who say they did not experience discrimination in their life before politics, half say that they experienced discrimination after getting involved in politics. This means that politics takes place in a more sexist arena than that which women have experienced in the private sector. The biggest barriers women face are systemic and structural, including informal party-based recruitment processes followed by inadequate support.

 

Career orientations for women are diverse, in flux, and malleable. Overall, women are initially attracted to running for office less as a career than as a way of providing public service. Issue mobilization is an important route to politics, as well as the realization that serving in office is a major way to have an impact on issues. Younger elected women tend to be more interested in holding higher offices, probably reflecting the doors opened by the first substantial wave of women office holders, and experienced women candidates provide advice to young women that emphasizes strategic career-building. Experienced women candidates and women state legislators and officeholders provide detailed, long-term, strategic advice for ambitious young women in their twenties that is quite different from the trajectory that they themselves followed – which suggests the potential for a groundswell of interest in and support for new ways of doing recruitment and training for women.

 

Politics is a two-person career and this is unlikely to change in the near term without substantial changes in public policy, family life, and political institutions. Men in politics are typically married and can usually count on their wives to do the bulk of family care as well as provide other essential support to their political careers (campaign work, joint and solo appearances, access to help from additional family members and networks). The gendered nature of office holding is extremely challenging for women. The women in this study volunteered a number of types of ways that they work around the challenges facing them. These include running as a single person, having a husband (or in some cases another close relative) as their campaign manager or at least active in politics, having a husband who is a stay-at-home Dad or agrees to share family care responsibilities, having a home environment where someone else (e.g., the candidate’s parent or parent-in-law) materially helps with child care, integrating the children into public life (e.g., raising them in the Capitol), or pursuing office holding that works because it is either local or part-time. These work-arounds limit advancement to higher office, since several of them may not be able to be transplanted to Washington, D.C., or would prove less functional in a more visible executive office or other more demanding political role.

 

Women do differ and will likely continue to differ on how to combine children and family with their plans for elective office. Some women, for example, will be happy to campaign and serve with babies given their commitment to work while mothering and their high comfort level with multi- tasking. These women see viable pathways to combining office holding with mothering that make sense for them and their partners. Other women wish to wait until their children are older. Some women want to be the ones to put their children to bed at night, while others worry about the exposure of their children to being attacked or seeing their mother attacked in the media when political controversies arise. Yet others dislike the additional family stress created due to the rigors of elective office holding and public service. And yet, there are some women for whom becoming a mother was the inspiration for public service and office holding. This variability is important because it suggests that a one-size-fits-all recruitment approach might omit women with differing perspectives on how to combine their family life with public service. While it will surely help to have family-friendly work environments for women officeholders, that alone will not necessarily change the personal choices women make. To provide a more welcoming environment for women will require changing how the political parties and members of the public react to women who enter politics in different ways at different life stages, whether they begin politics when single or childless, as mothers of young children, or later in life. These career paths must all come to be viewed as pluses rather than negatives.

 

Higher office holding is different. The considerations that women candidates and elected officials have in mind when considering running for or holding higher office are distinctive and separate from an interest in politics or running for that first office. Women recognize that running for higher office is more demanding in nearly all ways. Further, women report making strategic decisions when they choose to either pursue or decline an opportunity for moving up. Typically, the reasons women give for their decision reflect their knowledge of “campaigning-while-female” as well as their realistic assessment of their chances of success and the requirements such a run is likely to place on themselves and their families, as well as an acute awareness of political timing and opportunities.

 

Ambition is not an issue or a deficit with these women. Most women self-recruited for their first office or campaign, and only one in four say others recruited them for their first office. Women candidates and elected officials display considerable interest in and indeed drive to run for offices at all levels, including higher office, have made personal and professional and financial sacrifices to engage in public service, and are distinctly political personalities who enjoy campaigning and have developed effective strategies for political success. These political women enjoy politics and in contrast to some statistical studies in which women have (on average) lower self-confidence than men, many of the study participants say that their self-confidence is one of their best assets.

 

Campaign training is highly valued, but primarily for the political skills that are learned rather than providing the impetus or inspiration for running. Nearly nine in ten of those who participated in training before running said it was extremely helpful in learning the nuts and bolts of campaigning. They also suggest that training should be expanded and enhanced to be more woman-centered to address campaigning-while-female, to provide a better understanding of how to work within political parties, to learn how to build women’s pipelines and leadership skills, and to assist women in developing national (for local candidates) or local networks (for congressional staff) and to develop more sponsor relationships for aspiring candidates and more peer-to-peer networks among women nationally, especially for those who seek higher office.

 

Overall, the organized women’s community is repeatedly mentioned as both important in terms of providing leadership as well as an important way of mobilizing women to politics outside of the usual avenues. This is an area where women’s organizations can have a growing impact. While there were gaps cited in terms of support from the women’s community, and young women elected officials in particular felt distant, there is a hunger for more support from the women’s community as well as from women elected officials.

 

While in some geographic areas, the political parties and the political culture are quite supportive and egalitarian in terms of recruiting and electing women, in contrast, in other jurisdictions, the political parties put up tremendous barriers to electing women, according to study participants. Weaknesses in the parties suggest the need for effective change to originate outside of the parties, for example, in the nonpartisan women’s movement. The women’s community could also create opportunities to make recommendations to the political parties and provide training to political party leaders on how to best recruit and support women candidates and elected officials.

 

Recommended Action Steps

Elected women officials and experienced women candidates look to the women’s community for leadership, and provided numerous, concrete ideas for ways to double the number of women in elective office by 2022. They are also eager to become involved in recruiting, training, and mentoring relationships. While the local farm team is said to be graying in some states, in others, these women are creating state-level organizations to encourage women to run for local and state offices. But there remain large gaps in developing national ties, strengthening the pipeline, and in supporting elected women who have progressive ambitions for office holding.

 

The action steps recommended by the participants, in turn, will require more research, organizational changes in the women’s community, policy advocacy of reform initiatives, new approaches to public awareness, new methods of encouraging mentoring and sponsorship, as well as developing new training and recruitment models.

 

Here is an overview of the ten major types of action steps recommended by the study participants.

1. Launch an Organized Effort to Build the Pipeline and Improve Strategic Race Placement.

To double the number of women in elective office will require a broad scale approach where the women’s community simultaneously reinforces and expands the pipeline by recruiting and training young women (who will be running for local rather than state or federal offices in most cases), local elected officials, and all women regardless of viability (since women may run again), and expands the range of issues that it uses to assess and evaluate women candidates so that all women can be supported even if there is not 100 percent agreement on all the issues. In addition, the study participants strongly recommend mapping potential races and open seats well in advance of openings and working to place women as credible candidates in competitive races early on before male candidates occupy the field in advance of openings. This will require learning how to “claim” a seat even before it becomes open, which should also be included in training. Building the pipeline also requires that candidates have an awareness of the importance of timing – running for the right office at the right time for one’s personal circumstances and political life.

 

2. Expand and Enhance Existing Training.

Training was the second most important set of recommendations emerging from the interviews and focus groups. This includes developing woman-centered training to address campaigning-while-female, explaining how to select the office for which to run and how political pipelines work and can be managed to credential a candidate for the next race. In addition, new models of training that stress long-term leadership development as well as ten-year plans for women in the pipeline were recommended. Other content recommendations include teaching women that politics is power and not to fear the consequences of political conflict and providing targeted training to specific types of candidates – existing officeholders, congressional staff members, women over 50, CEOs, attorneys, young women elected officials, etc. Training should also include an introduction to national networks and potential mentors and sponsors for elected officials. Finally the timing of training should be extended so that training is also available outside of traditional recruitment cycles.

 

3. Provide for Mentoring and Sponsorship of Women Candidates and Elected Officials.

This action step not only includes developing mentoring programs as well as helping both the mentee and the mentor to understand the mentoring process, but also developing an awareness of the importance of sponsorship–which seems to be more common in the male networks that many identified as existing at all levels. Sponsors introduce rising candidates to moneyed connections and provide material support to help them succeed. Another aspect of mentoring and sponsorship is helping to get women appointed to offices to provide credentials in between election cycles. This is especially helpful for women who have recently lost an election. And elected women officials can work to identify women in the community as well as staff members who might follow them in office.

 

4. Enhance Public Awareness.

Public awareness recommendations mention working to increase respect for women among the general public, as well to develop more awareness of female role models through the media. This includes creating more political space for different types of women, whether running in their twenties, running as a second career, or running when unmarried. There are also suggestions to use targeted efforts to make political leadership more attractive to potential women candidates—targeting, for example, to encourage girls to consider public service through girls’ organizations, and high school and civics courses, as well as youth leadership opportunities and opportunities to meet women leaders.

 

5. Increase Understanding of Fundraising Complexities.

While research suggests that established women candidates raise as much money as men do, in these interviews and focus groups women still express unease with aspects of the process. Candidates can easily learn the “ask,” but getting beyond that is more difficult. Candidates must develop personal relationships with major donors and they must expand their lists, especially if they want to move onto higher office. Sponsors can be extremely helpful in this list building. Beyond endorsements, it was recommended that more fundraisers be sponsored for women candidates and elected officials.

 

6. Provide a “Campaign-in-a-Box” Approach for Campaign Support.

Participants strongly believe that women candidates need campaign assistance beyond endorsements. These recommended action steps ranged from providing material help through discounts for campaign services from trusted suppliers and other campaign resources helpful to women who are learning how to manage a campaign themselves as well as learning how to be the candidate to providing women with ways to manage their family care responsibilities while campaigning.

 

7. Recruit and Ask Women to Run.

It was recommended that recruitment be continued and expanded. While most women in this study are self-starters for their first office, it was also acknowledged that asking and encouraging women to run is a vital part of doubling the number of women in office. Expanded recruitment for higher offices could also help in terms of ensuring that state and local candidates are introduced to national networks. In addition, recruitment could be expanded to target women who are already leaders; especially in the issue-advocacy community because issues mobilization was a common way the Achieving Parity study participants entered politics.

 

8. Advocate Institutional Reforms.

Three areas identified for potential reforms include campaign finance reform, using gender quotas to increase the number of women running, and working with the political parties to create better ways for the male-dominated party networks to work with women candidates. These suggested reforms have the potential of addressing two problems faced by women candidates. The first problem is the fundraising barrier for higher office holding which has been exacerbated because some state and local races now have local campaign limits that have diminished personal fundraising networks critical for higher offices. The second problem is that there are more candidates and more incumbents that are male than there are office opportunities. The parties need to change the way they work with candidates to be more open to parity for women candidates.

 

9. Create a Village Among Women’s Organizations.

From the lowest levels of office holding to the top, women’s organizations sometimes seem fragmented or distant. One set of recommendations suggests an increase of the type of coordinated effort led by the Political Parity Leadership Team. Others suggest a new national network that goes across levels of office and introduces women to those who work at other levels. This type of national network is increasingly useful to those seeking higher office. Others recognize that all women’s organizations need to get involved in electing more women to office; they need to make it a higher priority.

 

10. Make Campaigning and Office Holding Family-Friendly.

Changes here could involve expanding the idea that “children are off-limits” for media criticism during campaigns (a norm which is widely accepted at the presidential level) to creating an awareness that some women enjoy campaigning with their children to providing family- friendly schedules and on-site day care for political events and legislative sessions.

 

Read the full report and recommendations