CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - Women make up slightly over half of the U.S. electorate, but their representation in prominent public office falls far short of that.
Females hold just over 19 percent of congressional seats. They account for six out of 50 state governors and less than a quarter of all state legislators.
Numerical imbalance isn’t the only issue. "We know from research that governments … that are more gender balanced tend to get more done. They tend to have less corruption" and more collaboration, lawyer Mollie Lam tells dozens of students and educators – almost all women – gathered at South Carolina’s College of Charleston one late-winter Saturday.
They’ve assembled for Elect Her, a daylong workshop on why and how to run for public office – starting with student government. A nonpartisan project of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and Running Start organization, it’s among a number of efforts aimed at widening the political pipeline for female candidates.
Two common obstacles squeeze them out, says Lam, the workshop’s facilitator and the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund’s senior manager:
• Imposter syndrome. While men tend to overestimate their qualifications, women often underestimate theirs. Jennifer L. Lawless, who directs American University’s Women & Politics Institute, tells VOA that in national surveys asking respondents whether they’re qualified to seek public office, "about 60 percent of men but only 40 percent of women say yes, even though they have the exact same resume." While some men who doubt their own qualifications still run, "women who self-assess as unqualified stop at that point."
• A perceived or real difference in female candidates’ treatment. Women candidates experience widespread bias, Lam says, noting they’re scrutinized for appearance and often asked about family responsibilities. A 2014 Girl Scouts report found that by the time they’re in middle school, "girls have determined they’re not fit to run," she adds.
Training future candidates
Elect Her aims to change that thinking. Its workshops – begun in 2009 and now staged at 50 U.S. college campuses a year – teach campaign skills such as organizing and fundraising. Politicians come in to discuss their successes and failures. Participants test their skills through a mock campaign and election.
"What are people talking about on campus?" Lam asks, in an exercise to determine campaign issues.
One participant calls for more diversity on campus. (Roughly 18 percent of the school’s nearly 10,000 students are of color.) Others mention student loan debt, immigration, food waste, a parking shortage, the impact of gentrification on Charleston’s poor and working-class people.
Find an issue about which you’re passionate, then harness that passion to help find stakeholders and solutions, Lam advises. For instance, she asks, who might be interested in parking?
"Commuter students." "People with cars." "Administrators." "Parking enforcement for the city," participants call out.
All those stakeholders would need to be consulted – and could help support a campaign, Lam says.
Kate Glass, one of three young women on a panel representing the campus Student Government Association (SGA), praises its candidate application requiring 50 student signatures. "When getting signatures, you meet people" and hear their concerns, she says.
More seasoned politicos share insights, too.
South Carolina lawmaker Mia McLeod, a Democratic state senator elected in 2010, says she faces multiple challenges or advantages. "I’m a triple threat," she tells her audience over lunch. "I’m a Democrat in a Republican state. I’m black, just in case y’all hadn’t noticed, and I’m a woman."
She earned headlines in late 2015 for a bill that would restrict erectile dysfunction medication. The so-called "Viagra bill" requires, among other things, outpatient counseling and a cardiac stress test every 90 days to ensure that the patient’s health is "compatible with sexual activity."
McLeod says she devised the satiric measure "to broaden the discussion and expose the hypocrisy" of the state’s heavily male legislature in restricting access to abortion. (In March, the South Carolina Senate voted to ban abortion after 19 weeks of gestation.)
"This arena is hard," McLeod says, acknowledging both her discomfort with campaigning and fundraising and the long hours of meeting with colleagues and constituents.
But the single mother and former lobbyist says she’s glad her two sons prodded her to run. "They said, ‘If you’re not part of the process, then you don’t get to complain. So, I decided to run."
Elect Her workshop participants break into a handful of teams to refine campaign platforms and create succinct messages.
"The main point is to exchange contact information," Lam says. "Hit on the big, eye-catching stuff."
Finally, each team’s representative makes its pitch before individuals cast ballots.
A student who lost some credits in switching to the College of Charleston argues for a smoother process. Other teams press for greater campus diversity and better housing options. But Chelsea Roland wins the vote by proposing campus self-defense training to combat sexual assault.
"Keep on Roland!!" teammate Cora Webb writes on her own ballot.
Elect Her has given Webb the confidence to run for student government, she says as the workshop ends.
Webb writes in a follow-up email that, though she hasn't won a seat in the spring election, the workshop "was a wonderful gateway for us women to understand how the process of getting involved in politics not only helps the outside world with its issues, but it also strengthens and prepares you as a woman for the uphill battle as well."
Programs such as Elect Her provide important modeling, says Susannah Wellford, Running Start’s founder.
"I think especially for something like politics, it just seems so daunting. You think of someone like Carly Fiorina or Hillary Clinton – it’s so powerful," Wellford says of the respective Republican and Democrat, the only two women out of 23 initial contenders in the 2016 presidential race.
Clinton, who’s battling Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, initially competed with four men; businesswoman Fiorina was up against 16 for the Republican nod before dropping out in February.
The bombast marking that race could deter both women and men from political futures, says American University’s Lawless.
Co-author of "Running From Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics," she says "the next generation" already believes "that solving problems is not something that the electoral arena would ever allow them to do. … Given that women are less likely to think about running in the first place, candidates like [Donald] Trump certainly do not do anything to boost their enthusiasm or their ambition."
Lawless is working on a new book, with George Washington University political science professor Danny Hayes, that "tries to debunk those myths" that women can’t win. Their research, like that used by Elect Her, "shows the power of political recruitment."
"When women are encouraged to run for office, they’re just as likely as men to respond favorably," Lawless says. And, she adds, "They’re just as likely to win."