In Order to Elect More Women, We Need to Change How We Evaluate Candidates
Every voter has their own unique set of criteria they utilize when deciding who to vote for in an election. Yet somehow this process yields an astonishingly low amount of female legislators. Despite making up nearly 51% of the population, women only hold 24% of all statewide elected offices, 25% of all state legislator seats, and 20% of all Congressional seats.
I’m not suggesting that gender should be the only factor when determining who to cast your vote for, but one has to wonder – how did we get here? And what can we do to turn the tide?
A great case study of this question is a race that occurred in my own backyard last year for Ohio’s 24th Senate District. Democrat Emily Hagan faced Republican Matt Dolan. On paper – both were very qualified. Both Matt and Emily are experienced attorneys. Each have held roles in various organizations and are active in their communities. Name recognition was also not an issue, as Emily comes from a family active in local politics, and Matt’s family owns the Cleveland Indians. Yet Dolan scored a fairly convincing 60%-40% victory.
In order to dissect what happened, it’s helpful to review the endorsement given by our Local Newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Factors cited in the endorsement include: Dolan's previous legislative experience, Hagan's "lack of political seasoning", and the fact that Republicans control the State Senate. Therefore Dolan could better advocate for Northeast Ohio interests since he was a member of the party in power.
Respectfully, I would counter, that none of those points constitute genuine reasons to endorse a candidate.
Experience and ability to influence are often cited as the main factors when selecting a candidate. So the editorial board’s guidance was very much in line with conventional thinking. These factors will almost always benefit men over women.
How so? As it stands there are more men holding elected office. Therefore, there will always be more men seeking higher office. In addition, a candidate with experience is also assumed to be a better “influencer.”
If this is the ongoing cycle, why would we ever expect to see an increase in women holding political office?
We won’t, unless we change how we evaluate our candidates.
The first step is acknowledging that the “legislative experience” criterion more often than not applies only towards females, and not males. Don’t believe me? Check the bio of almost any female legislator, from either side of the aisle. Sarah Palin, Mia Love, Patty Murray, Tulsi Gabbard – all of these women climbed the political ladder from local politics, to the state legislature, and finally to the national stage. Yet we’ve had plenty of businessmen elected directly to Congress. We’ve also had pastors, reality tv stars, and football players, These men are lauded for the experience in their given field that they bring to the office. No one seems to question their lack of “seasoning.”
Another factor may be how we perceive how certain professions better prepare a candidate to serve. Congress is overwhelming full of those with a background in business or law. While more women are taking on prominent roles in these fields, they are still predominantly male.
In regards to a correlation between having experience and being an influencer-this is an entirely subjective opinion. While there are great legislators who represent their constituents well, who is to say that someone with a different background couldn’t do the same or better, such as a teacher? Assuming just because someone has been previously elected is not a full proof indicator that he or she can advocate and influence better than their opponent.
Ultimately though, the makeup of our elected officials, especially at the highest levels, is based upon one predominant factor: wealth. It’s expensive to run for elected office, which means ordinary citizens are at a tremendous disadvantage when running against those who can self-finance a multimillion dollar campaign.
While research widely varies regarding what percentage of the ultra-wealthy are women, we do know the following: Women earn both 60% of undergraduate and graduate degrees, hold 52% of all professional level jobs, yet hold a staggeringly low percentage of leader roles in those same professions.
These statistics deserve a much deeper dive in order to determine why there is a dearth of women in senior leadership roles. However, the connection back to politics is clear. If men overwhelmingly hold high earning jobs, they will constitute a high percentage of elected officials-since having wealth is key to winning elections.
Back to the race between Dolan and Hagan. You won’t be surprised to know that Dolan, from a wealthy family, outspent his opponent by a 3-1 margin, or about $600,000.
As long as men hold the majority of the jobs which create wealth, they will hold the majority of elected offices - unless we change how we evaluate candidates. It is incumbent upon all of us to take a deeper dive into the backgrounds of those who wish to represent us and demand more answers on where they stand on issues. We can’t just accept well-rehearsed stories that they recite at each campaign stop and in commercials.
The only way to ultimately level the playing field is for voters to take ownership of the responsibility to educate ourselves, embrace the idea of bringing those with different experiences into elected office, and reject the culture of candidates trying to “buy” an election.