“Too nasty.” “Too mean.” “Too confrontive.” “Too intrusive.” These are just a few of the common responses I receive when approaching capable women about possibly running for political office. And who can blame them? Spend any amount of time watching the political pundit de jour and you can leave disillusioned and pessimistic.
One of the missions of the organization I currently lead, the Women’s Leadership Institute, is to urge women to aspire to leadership positions, including positions in the political arena. Utah has the dubious distinction as one of the worst states in the country for women represented in politics. Indeed, we currently and historically have benefited from several effective women leaders. But the number of women in politics in the Beehive State is paltry, worse than the national average, which is also comparatively low at 19 percent in Congress, for example.
Why is this and why should we care?
According to Dr. Susan Madsen, professor of leadership and ethics at Utah Valley University, female political candidates win elections at the same rate as men, but women avoid running for public office for a number of reasons, namely: gender socialization, lower political aspirations and lack of support and encouragement. Women represent half of our population and have a significant impact on the socialization and perceptions of children regarding issues and politics. Who are we grooming to help lead our communities, state and country?
We should all be concerned that women are sparsely represented in political offices. Public policy debates can determine whether our children will go to war, whether our parents will live in security and whether Earth itself will continue as we know it. Women not only deserve a seat at the policy-making table to lend a different voice, but women are obligated to take a prominent seat at the table. The problem is that women often don’t see how politics affects their everyday lives.
Speaking from experience, a number of times I have been the only female on committees in the Utah Legislature. The discussions included topics that I know could have been enhanced and enlightened by a greater critical mass of women’s voices; for example, whether Utah should allow guns in churches and schools, whether we should offer the new and effective HPV virus vaccine that has proven to prevent cancer and whether we can find new ways to fund public education in Utah.
But there are additional reasons why women should consider running for political office, reasons you hardly ever hear about:
- Learn how the government system works. If you need information about health services for an aging loved one, what’s going on in schools, etc. you know where to go for answers.
- Career enhancement. Because so few women run and serve in political office, companies often seek out those who are willing to step up.
- Foster relationships with key influencers. You get rapid response to inquiries.
- Educational experiences. I venture to say that serving in political office is equivalent to significant time in higher education.
- Confidence building and the ability to hone critical skills like oral and written communication, problem solving and critical thinking.
- Enhanced opportunities to serve on boards and in community building.
- Grooming for leadership and as a role model, particularly for young women.
- Self discovery. It takes many people a lifetime to “find out who they are.” Candidates for political office learn who they really are, their passions, what makes them tick, their values, etc.
- Makes you a more interesting person. People seek you out to discuss issues, to find out what’s going on. You never run out of things to talk about.
- You can help create positive, lasting change in public policies and in allocating public funds.
- Get/keep in shape as you walk neighborhoods.
Most successful businesses know that you must clearly communicate the benefits of a product, not just the features of a product. In this case, the product is political power and how it benefits individuals, families and communities. After all, it’s important for women to have a voice, but it’s imperative to have a vote. As Oprah Winfrey has said: “Politics is social work with power.” It’s time for a critical mass of women to have a prominent seat at the political table.
Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute. Previously she was a co-founder and president of Dan Jones & Associates, and served 14 years in the Utah Legislature.
Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute. Previously she was a co-founder and president of Dan Jones & Associates and served 14 years in the Utah Legislature.