When I first started working in politics, people asked me all the time, “When are you going to run for office?” I don’t think my answer – a quick “never” – made people happy. I was more of a Sam Seaborn or Olivia Pope (from The West Wing and Scandal) than Frank Underwood (from House of Cards); I tried to make an impact behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.
Unfortunately, too many of our state’s best and brightest women share my response, leaving North Carolina without the insight, collaboration, compromise that women bring to office.
A new report by David McLennan, visiting professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, shows that women account for 54 percent of registered voters in North Carolina but hold less than a quarter of all appointed and elected offices.
The news gets even worse for women in rural areas and for women of color. For example, there are 44 rural North Carolina counties that do not have a single woman serving on the board of county commissioners.
Despite having one Black congresswoman – Alma Adams – and ten women of color in the NC General Assembly, only 2.3 percent of candidates for elected office in North Carolina have been women of color since 2004.
McLennan found that women who do run for office are successful. In 2014, 25 percent of the candidates in North Carolina elections were women – and 63 percent of them won their races. The report also found that in the 28 most competitive political races in North Carolina in 2014, women raised nearly 30 percent more money than men.
So, why aren’t more women running for office? And what can we do to reverse the trend?
Too many women – like me – simply don’t see themselves as political leaders. Research shows that women are half as likely as men to see themselves in elected office and half as likely again to take any steps to seek office. In fact, men are 60 percent more likely to consider themselves “very qualified” to run for office.
Women are also less likely to be encouraged or recruited to run for office not only by party leaders and activists but also by colleagues, family, and friends. A lack of female political role models – especially at the local levels – is discouraging to women as well.
Traditional gender roles continue to play a role in keeping women out of elected office as well. Women continue to bear most of the household and childcare responsibilities. Juggling family responsibilities, a job outside the home and a campaign or additional part-time job (that is usually low- or no-pay) likely seems completely overwhelming for many women.
There’s no simple formula to getting more women to run for office, but there are steps we can take to make a difference. The process starts early; girls and young women should be encouraged to take on leadership roles in school, in extracurricular activities, and in other settings.
Colleges and universities can also play a powerful role. A 2013 study revealed that young women who take just one political science course in college are 40 percent more likely to consider a career in the public sector. McLennan says advisors and professors need to increase women’s exposure to these fields.
Leadership training, networking, and mentoring tailored to women are particularly effective in encouraging more women to run for office. That’s why Women AdvaNCe is committed to educating and empowering women through our women’s summit, AdvaNCe Teams, and discussion of the issues that matter to North Carolina women and families.
Groups like Women AdvaNCe, Lillian’s List (for progressive women), the Political Institute for Women, the Women’s Forum of NC, and the Institute of Political Leadership should collaborate and link to colleges and universities to boost the pipeline of female candidates. Additional training programs have been found to be the single most effective tool for converting potential candidates to declared candidates, and training specifically tailored to women is most effective.
We all benefit when our government features a diverse set of ideas and voices and when the strengths of women are brought to the table. It is the best way to ensure that the issues that matter to women and to our families are heard. Get involved, support organizations like Women AdvaNCe and talk to your daughters about leadership.
Maybe even consider running for office. This self-described Sam Seaborn will help you.
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.