Women encouraged to run for office

A little more than a week ago, hundreds of thousands of women marched in Washington and cities across the country. But some public policy advocates want to see more women run.

Specifically, more women need to run for office, advocates say.

Women hold about 19 percent of the seats in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. The state Legislature includes 47 women among its 253 members.

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Locally, state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, stands as the lone woman among the 13 state lawmakers representing portions of Berks County.

Even worse, for the second consecutive session, Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation has no women among its 20 members.

“It’s embarrassing. It really is,” said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University. “Pennsylvania has a lot of great attributes, but the diversity of the governing body is not one of them.”

Pennsylvania trails the country at large when it comes to female legislators. The Keystone State is 39th in the nation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Both the state Democratic and Republican parties are doing better at reaching out to women, experts say.

Pennsylvania Democrats nominated former state environmental secretary Katie McGinty in her unsuccessful effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Lehigh County Republican. Republicans have made progress in finding female candidates. State Rep. Martina White became the first Republican to win an open state legislative seat in Philadelphia in a quarter-century.

But as the numbers show, there is plenty of progress to be made.

A complex problem

Nationwide, the percentage of female state lawmakers has been stagnant for nearly a decade, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. About 24 percent of all state lawmakers are women.

“Our challenge is not that women are running in droves and don’t win,” Walsh said. “Women win at the same rate as men do in comparable races.”

The challenge has been to get women to run in the first place.

Women typically haven’t been recruited as aggressively as men to run for state legislative seats, Walsh said.

“Women are more likely to run for the state legislature if they are recruited, and we know they are less likely to be recruited than men are,” Walsh said.

Schwank said many women shy away from running for office.

“I think that we still wait to be asked or worry that we may not have the qualifications to do the job as we feel it needs to be done,” Schwank said. “I think that attitude is persistent among women.”

The state Democratic and Republican parties are demonstrating more interest in finding women to run for office, said Brown. But she said both parties have long held a male selection bias when it comes to seeking legislative candidates.

Women often wait later than men before running for office, Walsh and Brown said. Some feel they can’t run until their children are grown.

Schwank said that was true for her.

“I don’t know that I could have been able to do the job the way that I wanted to do it if I was trying to raise children at the same time,” said Schwank.

Schwank, who is 65, has just begun her second full term. But as many women wait until their late 40s to enter politics, they often have a shorter trajectory, Walsh and Brown noted.

It typically takes years for a state lawmaker to get choice committee assignments or leadership posts. Female candidates – and male candidates – have a greater chance of gaining clout in the Capitol if they run for a seat at an earlier age.

Some women shy away from the less appealing aspects of running for office, such as fundraising or the prospect of negative campaign ads.

Female lawmakers typically match male candidates in fundraising in comparable races, Walsh said, but they may have to expend more time and energy to do it.

Nature of the state

Pennsylvania’s full-time legislature, which pays the second-highest legislative salaries in the country, presents another obstacle to getting more women in the Capitol.

Lawmakers earn a minimum of about $86,000, and top legislative leaders can earn more than $100,000.

“Men tend to want those jobs,” Brown said. “It tends to be more competitive.”

States that pay lawmakers modest salaries typically have a greater number of women serving as legislators, said Brown.

Pennsylvania’s legislative seats are increasingly safe, thanks to redistricting efforts designed to protect incumbents in both parties. There are fewer competitive districts for any candidate to pursue.

“Your best opportunity is in a vacant seat,” Schwank said.

The gridlock in politics – at the state and national level – can be a deterrent. Some women interested in public service opt for working with nonprofit groups or philanthropic organizations.

“They find other avenues to affect social change,” Brown said.

Why it matters

For Brown and others, it’s not about merely getting more women into the state Capitol. Advocates argue that getting more women to serve as state lawmakers would strengthen the General Assembly.

Women legislate differently than men, Brown said. They bring up public policy issues that are often ignored.

The federal law providing paid family leave emerged in the 1990s largely because the rising number of women in Congress articulated the need for it.

“We know from political science research when we have more women at the table, we have more public policy interests being brought up,” Brown said.

Female lawmakers are often more interested in sharing the credit on legislation with their colleagues.

“They tend to use a lot more collaborative language, identifying ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’ in claiming credit for bills,” Brown said. “It may seem like a small thing, but it leads to more bipartisanship.”

When there is more bipartisan cooperation, it makes it easier to pass important legislation, Brown said.

Surge of interest

More women appear motivated to run for office.

In February, Chatham’s Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics is running two bipartisan training sessions to help prepare women who are considering running for elected office.

An event in Pittsburgh is already sold out with 111 women registered, Brown said, and an additional 85 women are on a waiting list. She said her office is scrambling to find a larger venue.

“We cannot be turning that many women away,” she said.

Chatham is holding another event in Philadelphia on Feb. 18, and slots are still available.

Brown attributes the enthusiasm to the 2016 election. Democratic women are motivated to run because they are angry about the results, Brown said. Conversely, some Republican women say they are enthused about the possibilities of holding elective office in light of the GOP’s recent successes.

Brown said the Republican and Democratic parties are eager to see more women participating. And she said women thinking about running for office shouldn’t be deterred by the small number of female lawmakers in Pennsylvania.

“Be a part of the change,” Brown said.

 

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