With the 2012 campaigns warming up, a lot of talk has focused on who will solve the nation’s problems and how. But, one conversation that doesn’t always receive attention is the disparity between men and women in politics. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post earlier this year, Ruth Marcus raised this subject and presented these facts:
• Women hold about 17% of the 535 seats in the US Congress today.
• About 24% of state legislators in the US are women. South Carolina trails all other states with just 9% female legislators. (Center for American Woman and Politics)
According to a Brookings report, the issue is not how women perform in elections; rather, women simply are not running for these leadership positions. And this is occurring at all levels – national and state offices, as well as many college campuses. With so many women earning degrees and making achievements in education, what could be causing this lack of motivation to run for prominent political seats?
Part of the situation likely stems from structural problems in our political system. Incumbents, most of whom are men, have strategic advantages and often easily secure their reelection. It can be tough for a woman, or anyone for that matter, to feel up to the job of running against an incumbent. However, what’s interesting is that even in countries like Sweden where quotas are in place to raise the level of female leadership, the number of women in elected positions is still not representative of the population. So what else is happening here?
After talking to female friends and coworkers, another barrier emerged – women’s own internal desires that move us away from that type of life. When considering the balance so many women are trying to achieve in their work and personal lives, the time, effort, money, and public scrutiny involved in running for public office simply makes it unappealing. Also, I believe many women feel that they can make bigger (or perhaps more direct) impacts by offering their public service in other ways. For example, women dominate in fields like teaching, nursing, and social work, and 60% of Peace Corps volunteers are female.
There is so much to gain by having more women in leadership positions in the public sector, but without some major shifts in the current realities of running for and holding office, women will likely continue choosing to contribute in other ways.