Last Thursday, I attended a reception for Emerge America, an organization committed to training and supporting future and current female elected officials. It was remarkable to hear female members of Congress echo the experiences and theories written about in books and taught in classes.
Despite having more women serving in Congress and in the professional world than ever before, women still face an uphill battle in achieving equality in the political and professional worlds and therefore continue to be dramatically underrepresented in these fields.
Just over a year ago, I held a very different outlook on women in politics and the professional world. As a woman, I always felt a special pride when I accomplished something or rose to a level that was usually considered as reserved for men. I believed that women, as individuals, could advocate and work for themselves and did not need “special treatment.”
However, after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” as well as taking the class “Women in American Politics” with political analyst Donna Brazile here at Georgetown, my views changed drastically.
Women continue to be greatly underrepresented, making up only 34 percent of lawyers, 5 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 20 percent of all representatives in Congress. With statistics like these, we should all — both men and women — engage in the noble pursuit of encouraging and supporting women who want to enter such professions. As I have learned, working to promote oneself is great, but working to promote others is even better.
In the political world, gaining more female representatives — both Democratic and Republican — is vital because women representatives bring a whole new set of priorities and methods of leadership to our legislatures. Even with less than 20 percent of representatives in Congress being female, “Gender discrimination, women’s health and issues involving the balance between family and workplace are more seriously addressed,” write the authors of “Congress and its Members.” As Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) put it, “We’ve made it OK for men to talk about these [women’s] issues, too.” With women making up more than half of the American population, it’s just bad representation to have less than one-fifth of a representative body consist of women.
Even though women who run for office are elected at equal rates as men who run, there are many barriers that women face in the process of having their name printed on the ballot. History has proven to be one of the biggest barriers to women running for office.
After all, it wasn’t until 1974 that women could have credit cards in their own name; it wasn’t until 1975 that women could serve on juries; it wasn’t until 1987 that legislation was passed prohibiting employers from firing female workers simply because they were pregnant. Frankly, with these types of legal and societal barriers existing for as long as they did, it’s amazing we’ve come as far as we have.
Society continues to impose barriers on women today. No matter what career they hold, women are still expected to be the primary caretakers of children and take on the majority of household responsibilities. Many professional and political women either never have a family at all or wait until their children are grown to enter a profession or politics, giving them a much later start in their chosen careers. According to Director of the Women and Politics Institute Jenifer Lawless, women who do opt for both children and a career in elected office “face closer scrutiny and are forced to reconcile their familial and professional roles in a way that men are not.”
Even in 2014, deciding between or balancing a family and a career not only prevents many women from taking on higher leadership roles but also makes it much more difficult for them to succeed if they do decide to take on these roles.
Further, women are less likely to receive the suggestion to run for office from both a personal source as well as party elites. This is unfortunate because research has found that encouragement from either a personal source or party elites is a large determinant in someone’s decision to stand for election.
The barriers I’ve explained thus far are only a few of the many that exist to prevent women from taking office. So, in an optimistic call to action, I urge you all to please reach out to a passionate and inspirational woman you know and encourage her to run for office.
We need more women at every level of the corporate ladder and the political pipeline. We should not let the talents and abilities of half of our population go to waste.