One year ago, America came thisclose to electing its first female President. In the 12 months that have elapsed, we’ve seen a surge of women taking charge to make the government more representative of all Americans. Just one day after Donald Trump was inaugurated, millions of people flocked to cities around the globe to take part in the Women’s March. Members of Congress have faced overwhelming amounts of calls, letters, and emails from activists who want the legislative body to better represent their voices. And women at the state and local levels made huge strides on Election Day 2017—with thousands more pledging to run for office and take matters into their own hands come 2018.
As more and more women are trying to bridge the gender gap in politics at all levels of government—state, local, and federal—one organization is looking to give them the tools they need to successfully run. Emerge America trains Democratic women who want to run for office—and does so with an extensive six-month program that’s currently available in 23 states. Not long before the 2016 election, Emerge America surveyed just over 700 of their alumnae about what the biggest obstacles are for women hoping to run for office and recently released the report exclusively to Glamour.
Among the pool surveyed, 45 percent had actually run for office themselves and 60 percent of that subset had won their race, giving them a unique perspective on what these challenges are. For these former candidates, they were more likely to worry about how difficult it might be to hold office, whether or not they’d be taken seriously by voters or colleagues, and what it would mean if they lost the race—concerns that all make perfect sense for someone who’s run for office. Among women who had yet to run, their biggest hurdles primarily centered on a handful of persistent concerns: if the timing was right, how their income would be affected, if they could maintain a work-life balance, and whether they’d be perceived as lacking experience.
Not surprisingly, whether a respondent was a former candidate or a prospective one, the biggest fear they faced was the idea of men getting more opportunities than women, despite equal qualifications (in statistical terms: 89 percent of women who have run and 87 percent of those who haven’t said this was a fear).
But, in a brighter mark of solidarity between the groups, most women surveyed revealed that they had gotten into politics with the hope of impacting policy and making positive change. Of those who had made a bid for office, the primary reason for doing so was to improve their community (a total of 48 percent respondents agreed). Consider it a manifestation of the “if you want something right you do it yourself” principle—these women would see an issue (or numerous issues) in their communities and want to take the steps necessary to correct it. For 87 percent of women who had not run for office, a similar community-focused approach was a top reason for why they might one day throw their hat in the ring.
Now, these results may seem fairly straightforward when it comes to concerns about women running for office, but they can offer valuable insight into how we can get more women in politics. Step one: Acknowledge all the logistical issues that would-be candidates face—specifically, concerns about timing and their lack of prior political experience—and encourage them that they are capable of running. And for existing candidates, the study sheds light on what their needs are—like greater support networks and increased fundraising opportunities—and how they can be translated into successful campaigns.
Beyond this, the report identified that women who hope to run for office come from all walks of life—and the concerns of different demographics must be taken into account when preparing to run. For women of color, racial discrimination, class discrimination, fear of an invasion of privacy, and fear that they would not be taken seriously as candidates were major worries. LGBTQ women were five times more likely to be concerned about sexual orientation discrimination. And in terms of women young versus old, younger women were far more concerned about losing income, facing gender discrimination, and not being taken seriously as candidates.
“Women are motivated to improve the world around them, so it’s up to us to make politics a realm where they feel like they can channel their community involvement,” said Andrea Dew Steele, the president and founder of Emerge America. “It’s not surprising that so many women reported wanting to better their communities as the main reason why they ran or would want to run for office. When there are more women at the table, our local, state and national governments change for the better and put forth policies that more effectively serve everyone.”
“Right now, women only hold a little more than a quarter of political offices in the country, so more of our voices are desperately needed in our decision making bodies. If we want to build a reflective democracy and see policy outcomes that benefit a majority of Americans, we need more women to step forward, decide to lead us and run for office.”