Shifting Gears: How Women Navigate the Road to Higher Office

A national debate has sparked over the dearth of women in leadership positions. Are they held back by lack of ambition or disadvantaged by the existing political infrastructure? With more women greatly needed in public office, what can we do?

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The Driver or the Road?

Women are more than half of the US population but hold fewer than a quarter of all political offices. Moreover, their ascent to high office has slowed rather than accelerated. Parity asked: why the scarcity of female candidates and elected officials? Are they uninterested, unwilling, or uncertain? Is the political system unresponsive and impenetrable? Ultimately, is the issue the driver or the road?

In Shifting Gears, we explore how women build political careers, revealing that how a woman perceives the path to higher office influences not only her route but also her destination. The endless detours, potholes, and roadblocks put off many women who enter politics locally but ultimately choose not to continue the journey to top office.

Encouraging more women to run for House, Senate, and Governor, and providing them with opportunities to succeed, is critical to improving how our government works. This requires a greater emphasis on personal ambition and the removal of structures that reinforce women’s hesitation about political careers. By revealing roadblocks and promoting strategies to dismantle them, we can see more women in the driver’s seat on the road to higher office.

On the Road to the Capitol

Although women follow many paths to public office, we identify five major stages of candidate emergence and political career development. Beginning or completing any one stage does not imply that a candidate continues on to the next stage; in fact, many women who contemplate an initial run for office may never advance to later stages.

Key Survey Findings for Each Political Stage

  1. Initially motivated by a specific issue, many women are mobilized to political action by a desire to achieve specific policy goals.
  2. Most women make the decision to run on their own (self-recruitment), but less often than men.
  3. Even if recruited, women are seen as outsiders and don’t receive the support promised, expected, or needed from parties.
  1. Female candidates experience greater scrutiny of their qualifications and appearances, impacting both media coverage and recruitment by political parties and other networks.
  2. Women expressed the need to comply with social norms to be considered credible; including acting and dressing professionally, as well as the “double bind” of acting like a leader without appearing aggressive.
  1. Once elected, women must learn to lead without alienating colleagues whose help they need in legislating.
  2. Women experience gender as a challenge in politics; young women especially battle for credibility and support.
  1. Women’s limited interest in higher office could indicate a belief that the demands of the job would negatively affect their personal and political lives; or they have balance, security, and fulfillment in their current work.
  2. Female politicians without mentors and limited party support aren’t seen as eligible or ready for higher office.
  3. While not a significant factor for first-time candidates, fundraising is the top consideration for those interested in higher office.
  4. Fundraising at a high level requires an established network, which women struggle to access.
  1. Women are more attracted to public service than building a political career. With the effort, planning, and persistence required for election to higher office, this mindset must shift for women’s representation to rise.
  2. Expanded mentoring across levels is essential for women to build the relationships they need to advance.
  3. Young elected officials and congressional staff expressed the desire for deeper relationships with experienced female officeholders.

Shifting Gears: Points of Interest

On-ramps for Aiding Women Candidates

Pitfalls/Potholes Derailing Women Candidates

Strategies for Change/Action Steps

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