Women Weigh Concerns When Deciding To Run For Political Office

Encouragement From Others Can Help Women Consider Candidacy
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Justin Ormont (CC BY 3.0)

Spring elections are here, and odds are good that the majority of the candidates on ballots are men. In the U.S., men occupy the vast majority of elected government seats, leaving us far behind countries like Rwanda, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the number of women in government. This disparity is present for national and local elected government positions.

Organizational research indicates that diverse groups make better decisions. However, women don't run for public office as often as men. But when women do run, they win elections at the same rate as their male counterparts. So why don't women run? University of Wisconsin-Extension's new Local Government Center is exploring this question.

Last summer, center researchers surveyed county board supervisors and people identified by UW-Extension educators and community leaders as potential candidates for local elected office. We developed two surveys asking current county board supervisors and potential candidates to identify barriers to running for office. More than 1,600 surveys were sent to women and men across Wisconsin, with nearly 600 responses returned from 38 urban and rural counties.

Barriers to running: real or perceived?

Several types of barriers emerged from the research. One centered on fundraising for campaign donations and a negative political atmosphere. Respondents indicated a lack of confidence in personal ability was another self-imposed barrier.

Potential candidates also cited concern about a lack of time. This barrier has been studied by other researchers exploring demands on women's time. For example, women spend more time than men on household chores and management during atypical day, with women averaging 2.6 hours a day and men 2.1 hours on household activities, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When considering these barriers, in every case potential candidates rated each to be more of a concern than did current county board supervisors. This finding indicates these barriers may not be as challenging as potential candidates believe.

Effectively encouraging more women to run may involve more discussions on the realities of campaigning and serving in elected office. Meanwhile, seeking campaign donations may not really be that big of a barrier — oftentimes there generally isn't that much money involved in local government elections.

Is self-confidence a determining factor?

Some of the identified barriers are rooted in self-confidence. Even though both male and female survey respondents self-identified as having relatively similar experiences, women appeared to doubt their abilities to run for and serve in local elected office to a greater degree than men. This finding may be somewhat similar to how women discount themselves for job opportunities.

Pinpointing these hesitations can help potential women candidates develop strategies to build confidence and familiarize themselves with the workings of local government. Additionally, non-partisan training may help increase confidence and provide an opportunity for women to explore possibilities.

What makes candidates well qualified?

Current elected officeholders and potential candidates identified three elements that make someone well-qualified to run for local elected office:

  1. Being informed on local public policy issues
  2. Knowing many people in the community
  3. Attending local government meetings

This information can be helpful for people who are considering running for elected office. Those who aren't confident about making a bid could explore opportunities by first serving on a board or commission.

Planting the seed

The most cited reason that current county board members around Wisconsin ran for office was because someone asked them to do so. Overall, 76 percent of county board members were asked to run for office. They reported that the most influential encouragement to run came from their friends and other elected officials.

What does this finding indicate? To get women and men to run for office, they need to be asked.

To increase the number of women who run for elected office requires people to suggest to women that they should run. Our research indicates potential candidates may need convincing that they do, indeed, have the experience, knowledge, and skills to run for and serve in elected office. This need for reassurance may be true even of people who are already viewed as having leadership skills.

Simply asking a woman if she has ever thought about running can make a difference. Planting that seed can encourage women to run, influencing not only respected community members who could be candidates, but also girls seeking inspiration. Women can embrace the leadership qualities others see in them through such motivation to explore their potential. With encouragement and support, more women may run for local office.

Victoria Solomon is community resource development educator with UW-Extension Green County. Solomon, Jenny Erickson, a community development educator with UW-Extension Sauk County, and Dan Hill, a specialist with UW-Extension's Local Government Center, published their original findings in the February issue of The Municipality, the magazine of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

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