November 5, 2012 | Politics and Leadership

The Leadership Gap: Organizations Fight to Bring Women into Political Office

By Maya Catherine Popa

In the past decade alone, women have made great strides in narrowing the gender gap where it matters most: education and the workplace. According to The White House Project's Benchmarking Women's Leadership Report, women are earning undergraduate degrees at a higher rate than men and are  recruited into the workforce in roughly equal numbers. The passing of the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act marked a historical legislative effort to ensure equal wages for women in the United States. In 2011, Christina Lagarde became the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, an organization of 188 countries devoted to global monetary cooperation.

Yet as some gender gaps have narrowed, others have widened, drawing attention to the remaining gender disparity in the political arena. Women currently hold 17% of seats in the Senate and 16.8% in the House of Representatives. Since 2008, the number of women serving as governors and state legislators has decreased. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 2010 saw the overall number of women in office decline for the first time in 30 years, placing the U.S. 79 behind 95 other countries in women's political representation, “barely edging out Turkmenistan.”

As director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a division of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, Debbie Walsh is all too familiar with the continued struggle for parity.

“The gap remains for women in electoral office and public leadership. While we see women attending law schools and professional schools in equal or greater number than men, a very small proportion of elected officials are women.” Although an indisputably growing number of women are qualified to serve, too few are running, and therefore too few get elected.

So why aren't more women running for office? Not everyone may recognize the imbalance. As Walsh explains: “I think there's a sense when we see Hilary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice that there are women in office...but there really isn't parity in numbers. We are encouraging more women to run for office and making a case that it matters when they're there.”

In 2010, the Center for American Women and Politics launched the non-partisan 2012 Project campaign as a way to inspire women to run for office and fill the rare open seats in the 2012 election. As their website explains: “Following the 2010 census, every congressional and state legislative district in the country is being redrawn, and new and open seats will be created. Reapportionment creates opportunity, and research shows that women have more success winning open seats. Also, presidential elections coincide with redistricting only once every 20 years, and research shows that voting patterns in presidential years further boosts women candidates.”

Raising awareness on the issues and numbers at stake has been paramount, alongside encouraging women to confront the challenges ahead collaboratively. As Walsh explains: “2012 is the year of opportunity because of redistricting at congressional and state levels. We have been a part of a national movement, working with hundreds of organizations to get more women to engage with the political process and to put a spotlight on the fact that we haven't reached parity.”

The project's campaign slogan, “Don't Get Mad. Get Elected,” seeks to recruit women to run for office, as does the project's strategic outreach to women at the executive-level from the private and public sectors who have never previously considered political involvement. The 2012 Project provides campaign training and political action committees, as well as a comprehensive state-by-state catalogue of available recourse: “Women interested in taking the next step toward candidacy are connected to leadership institutes, think tanks, campaign training programs and fundraising networks designed to help them succeed in their own states.”

The project's efforts have been felt across the country: 296 women filed to run for the House this year, shattering the previous record of 262 set in 2010 and proving that the upcoming election will give voters a chance to reverse the recent drop in number of female legislators. Meeting the 2012 Project's goal of “20 Percent in 2012”—a 3% increase in Senate—would mean the most notable increase since 1992's “Year of the Woman.” And Walsh emphasizes the importance and political potential of efforts on the state-level:

“It's important that women serve as state legislators because they inform public policy that effects the daily lives of citizens, infrastructure, education policy, environmental policy—so much happens at the state level. It is critical for that reason, but also because we see it as a springboard for running for higher office.”

What's Walsh's advice for this week? Follow the project's “Election Tracker” which monitors the progress of female candidates this election cycle, and most importantly: “Watch the election and the results on Tuesday to see what kind of historic firsts might happen. We could see the first black Republican woman from Utah in the house of congress, Mia Love. We could see the first all-female congressional delegation in New Hampshire. And we will be watching to see if in fact we will have the second largest incoming class of women in congress—the largest since 1992.”

Another organization devoted to increasing the number of women in office, The White House Project founded by Marie Wilson in 1998, works “at the nexus of business, politics and media” to answer “the need to build a truly representative democracy – one where women lead alongside men in all spheres.” It meets its mission by connecting, educating, and advancing women though its “Go Lead” leadership development training program and “Go Connect” networking and peer-to-peer development events held across cities nationwide.

With a network of over 14,000 alumnae, the organization continues to grow and promote “innovative and effective leadership” by women in the United States, specifically seeking to nurture the leadership potential of women ages 21-35. As Wilson remarked in a 2010 interview: “In all of my life, I’ve been interested in young women and how they are moving in life and work. Their energy is contagious! I really enjoy helping young women understand they have the power to make something happen and opening doors for them.”

The National Council for Research on Women states that: “When women do reach decision-making positions, it is not until they constitute a critical mass upwards of 30% that they are no longer perceived as representative of a special interest, but rather as full members of the group.”

Though the 2012 Project and the White House Project may make a significant contribution to this election cycle, Walsh reminds us that the battle for political parity won't be solved in one election. Efforts to secure equal representation must be ongoing.

“Longer term, we need to make sure that the records that are set this year continue, that we don't sit with these numbers but build on the successes of this cycle. The only way we will increase the number women serving in office is to increase the number of women running for office.”

Maya Catherine Popa is a writer for the Women in the World Foundation. She is currently completing a Master's in Creative Writing at Oxford University under a Clarendon Scholarship, as well as an MFA in Poetry from NYU. She co-leads a weekly writing workshop for veterans of Iraq & Afghanistan. Her writing appears in The Huffington Post, Locustpoint, and elsewhere.