Cash flow

The road to parity for women in politics: Follow the money

“Women run to do something and men run to be somebody.”

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(L-R) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)/Getty Images

Political parties and organizations need to work much harder to recruit female candidates and ensure access to campaign cash to turn around the stubborn underrepresentation of women in elective office. So said panelists on Tuesday at a public forum on women and politics sponsored by the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C.

Familiar factors continue to be a hindrance—the demands of raising children, deeper issues about work and gender roles in society, and women’s self-perceptions about their own qualifications. But money is a central part of the problem, they said.

Women can and do raise as much as men, but with less access to the big-money networks of high corporate ranks, they tend to expend more time and effort building those war chests, the panelists from academic, political and non-governmental groups told the gathering.

“How can we have a truly representative democracy if half of the population is priced out?” asked Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Foundation, a non-partisan group promoting women’s political equality. “We’re losing out on half of the talent and missing out on policies that women, based on their unique life experiences, can bring to the table.”

With women representing fewer than one in five members of Congress, the United States ranks 73rd among the world’s nations for percentage of women in parliaments or congresses. Activists are further discouraged that only six women serve as governors, and make up just 24 percent of state legislatures nationwide.

“The number of men currently serving in the U.S. Senate is greater than the number of women who have ever been U.S. senators,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told the gathering in the FEC meeting room.

Women select themselves out of the electoral process partly because they are turned off by today’s combative landscape, said Marni Allen of Political Parity, a research group. In a survey of law and policy students about politics, she said, the women responded: “Politics looked angry, it looked white and it looked male.”

“Women today look at the federal government and they see nastiness, gridlock. It doesn’t look particularly appealing. So women choose to stay where they are,” she said. The tendency is especially true for women with school-age children.

Political organizations as well as women officeholders can improve recruitment by better showcasing women’s accomplishments and opportunities to influence policy, panelists said. Walsh cited research asking politicians why they ran for office. Women mention issues. Men cite interest in politics as a career. Shorthand: “Women run to do something and men run to be somebody.”

In the money chase, evidence shows that women candidates, once in the race, raise money competitively with men, but it takes them longer, leaving them less time to campaign, panelists noted.

“A man might be able to pick up a phone and raise $1,000 with one phone call. A woman may have to make 10 phone calls in order to raise that same $1,000,” said Walsh. Exacerbating the inequity, men overwhelmingly are the major contributors to increasingly influential super-PACs, said Kimmell.

Democratic women have, however, benefitted from Emily’s List, the powerhouse political action committee that has raised more than $400 million to help thousands of pro-choice women run for office over the last 30 years.

Republican women do not have a similar high-profile PAC. Last year, despite some noteworthy successes, they ran for Congress or governor at about half the rate of women Democrats, said Christine Matthews, head of president of the polling firm Bellwether Research and partner in Burning Glass Consulting, a consulting firm that which specializes in targeting women voters. Republicans are stepping up efforts to recruit and train female candidates, but primary battles are particularly tough for GOP women, who win at half the rate of Democratic women, Matthews observed.

Panelists said that better targeting and recruitment at all levels is key, with men far more likely to put themselves forward than women, regardless of qualifications.

“Women really have to be recruited. They have to be asked and they have to be asked repeatedly. They often don’t think they’re ready and that they are qualified enough, no matter how qualified they are,” said Kimmell.

Experts on international politics noted that using quotas to achieve parity is a trend in many other countries that is changing the gender composition of governing bodies. In an American system reliant on voluntary actions, however, women must grapple with the intricate web of party, campaign finance and societal traditions that will have to adjust to move the needle on parity.

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