What keeps women from running for top elected offices?

Texas state Sen. Wendy R. Davis in Haltom City, Texas. (Sean Sullivan) Texas state Sen. Wendy R. Davis in Haltom City, Texas. (Sean Sullivan)

With Janet Yellen slated to become the next chair of the Federal Reserve, the nation is abuzz with the implications of her historic nomination.

But while Yellen is the 28th woman Obama has chosen for an executive role, the percentage of women entering top political positions is still disproportionate to the percentage of women in the country. This is abundantly clear during election season. Though 2012 saw a record number of women elected as public officials, few women make it to the ballot in the first place. Why?

“There’s still a question of glass ceilings,” said American University mathematics professor Mary Gray, who is also a statistician and lawyer.

According to Gray, the problem with the United States is that “we tend to not have women where it takes a lot of money to run for office.” Naming exceptions like Hillary Clinton’s Senate victory in New York and Elizabeth Warren’s in Massachusetts, and Susanna Martinez’s governorship in New Mexico, Gray held that men tend to put money behind other men.

In contrast, Michele Swers, a professor of political science at Georgetown University and author of “Women In The Club: Gender and Policy Making In The Senate,” says voters tend to back whoever’s most likely to win.

“Campaign finance is biased to incumbents,” said Swers. “Because there’s not that many women in office, women are more likely to be challengers, so it’s harder to raise money. But it’s not more difficult for a women challenger than a male challenger.”

“There’s a lot of research on how voters react to women candidates,” said Swers. “Most of it has to do with how voters react to different stereotypes about women. Political leadership qualities like being strong, direct and tough are considered male qualities. Women face a double bind in that you need to show yourself as tough and confident but still retain feminine qualities without appearing weak.”

Gray also thinks women candidates are helped if they “able to seize on a topic of interest. For example, Elizabeth Warren and fiscal policy. Most of the money she raised came from outside Massachusetts because people were committed to her policy in general. The same is true for Martinez in New Mexico.”

“The way most women have been elected is to find something that they represent that touches the hearts of people, something where there is no particular competitor. You can see that with Wendy Davis’ campaign,” said Gray.

Coming off her own nationwide fundraising effort, Texas state senator Wendy Davis might not have the fiscal restrictions Gray mentioned, but both Gray and Swers say her gubernatorial campaign will be a great challenge.

“She has a lot of courage but nonetheless she wouldn’t be running if there was a man who thought he could win,” said Gray. “No Democrat man has come forth because they don’t think they’ll get elected. Davis is a classic example: You can get women to do things that men don’t want to do.”

EMILY’s List, a PAC that supports the campaigns of progressive female politicians, has backed Davis’ campaign. An “off and on” EMILY’s List supporter herself, Gray thinks the PAC has encouraged women to run for offices where they might not otherwise run. But while the PAC is a “good device,” Gray thinks “it’s not enough to bring things to an equity level.

Besides campaign finance, what’s another aspect the public has overlooked when supporting women candidates?

Gray says the judiciary. Swers says the Republican Party.

“We do have three branches of government and it is important for women to take a leadership role in the judiciary,” Gray said.

“In numbers, Republicans are behind,” said Swers. “In the Democratic Caucus of the 113th Congress, the majority of Democrats were women and racial and ethnic representatives, leaving white men in the minority. In the Republican Caucus, white men were the majority by over 90 percent.”

“The number of women in public office has always been small at a national level,” said Swers. “They’re increasing at a slow pace and at a national level they’re increasing more with Democrats.”

“It comes and goes in cycles,” Gray said of women in public office. “There have been eras in the past where there was an influx on the national scene. Things may be getting better in state legislatures but I don’t necessarily see it on a national level.”

So how exactly are women faring in leadership positions in individual states?

Last month, the Center for American Progress released a report ranking each state on how it supports women. Based on nine factors analyzing the percentage of several specific leadership seats held by women and the management gap among various female minority groups, Utah, Arkansas and Kentucky women have the fewest leadership positions relative to men.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Maryland tops the list for women in leadership positions.

According to Center for American Progress senior fellow Buffy Wicks, Maryland is third in the nation in percentage of managerial jobs held by women and fourth in the nation in total percentage of elected positions in Congress, statewide elected executive office positions and state legislature seats that are held by women of color.

Maryland also has 110 sitting female judges, which is 39 percent of the state’s 279 total, according to the State of Maryland’s Judiciary, Based on figures provided by Forster-Long, Inc., a private firm that provides annual research for the National Association of Women Judges, Nevada has the same percentage of female judges and Oregon and Montana are the only two states with a higher percentage of 43 percent.

“On the whole, Maryland voters tend to support issues women candidates are favorable to, like gun control laws and access to reproductive rights,” Gray said. “From that point of view, women might feel more comfortable running.”

Though the report’s authors Anna Chu and Charles Posner gave states corresponding letter grades as high as an A, Wicks said the grades were relative and that there is still inequity for women at a state level.

“In all these states, there’s still a pay gap,” Wicks agreed. “Though states that got A’s tend to do better, there still needs to be a leveling of the playing field.”

 

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.

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Krissah Thompson · October 10, 2013