Women Still Vying for Leadership Spots

The number of women in political offices around the world is at an all time high. But some question whether women in America and other countries still face discrimination and other hurdles in pursuing political careers. A roundtable of advocates who promote women as political leaders discuss what progress has been made, and what challenges remain.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, Vicente Fox, the former President of Mexico. He talks about his years out of office, building Mexico's first presidential library, and immigration policy. But first, it's been repeated ad nauseam, this is an historic presidential election. The first serious African-American contender for the White House, and the first woman, and the first former first lady. But with all that history has come some baggage. Has sexism marked the presidential campaign? Does gender matter? How much?

But that made us wonder, what about the big picture? Who's on the rest on the ballot? What about the rest of the world? How are women doing in the battle to achieve political power? We pooled together a distinguished group of political observers to help sort it all out. Here with us are Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, Swanee Hunt, former ambassador to Austria and also founding director of the Women in Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Ellen Moran. She's executive director of Emily's List that supports the candidacy of pro-choice women in Congress and federal office. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. ELLEN MORAN (Executive Director, Emily's List): You're welcome.

Ambassador SWANEE HUNT (Former Ambassador to Austria, Founding Director, Women in Policy Program): Thank you for having us.

Ms. DEBBIE WALSH (Director, Center for American Women and Politics): Thank you.

MARTIN: I'd like to start our discussion with this quote by Marie Cocco in a recent syndicated column in the Washington Post. I'm sure you've all seen it. It's been, kind of, shooting across the blogosphere. She wrote that, "the United States already lags miserably behind the rest of the world in electing a woman as head of state. To look around the globe is to see a stark truth. Americans seem peculiarly averse to female leadership." I'd like to ask each of you, do you think that's true? Ellen?

Ms. MORAN: No, I don't think that they're averse to female leadership, and I think the candidacy, as Senator Clinton, in many ways, has broken that barrier. When Emily's List started 22 years ago there were many preconceptions about women candidates. Are they tough enough? Are they credible enough? Can they raise the money, back in those days, to be a credible candidate, and to really run and win? And certainly, Senator Clinton has passed all of those thresholds, and so I do think we are in a different time. Having said that, barriers still do exist, and we've still got a lot of work to do because women still only make up 25 percent or less of the legislative bodies across the country, and federally, as well.

MARTIN: Debbie, what about you? There's an historic number of women in the Congress, isn't there? I think the election of Jackie Speier to the House to replace Tom Lantos pushed that number to the highest in history.

Ms. WALSH: Yeah. I think that I would agree with Ellen in that I do think that Americans are ready for electing women, and I think they have been electing women, and I think that Senator Clinton's race for the presidency shows that. I mean, I think that she has done quite well in this election. While maybe, perhaps, not winning this race, it has been an incredibly close race, and so it has been a real testament to the fact that Americans are ready to elect a woman president, I think. And we have done well at other levels of office, but I think not well enough. We are at 16.3 percent at the federal level for Congress for the House and for the Senate, and we are at about 23, 24 percent at the state legislative level. But we do have a long way to go, and we've been seeing stagnation when it comes to the election of women at those down ballot levels at the state legislative levels, and at the state wide elective office. So, we have work to do.

MARTIN: Really? How long and why? You're saying stagnation. Why, and for how long has this stagnation been occurring?

Ms. WALSH: Well, we have not been seeing real increase in the percentage of women running since the mid 90s. The numbers of women running and holding office, particularly at the state legislative level, which has been troubling to us at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers because that is the pool of candidates who then run for statewide office, and who run for Congress. So, that is what we consider the bench, and if we don't see more women running at that level, we're concerned that we won't see more women running for higher office. We're also concerned because a tremendous amount of policy that affects the lives of citizens across this country are made at the state legislative level. So, there needs to be effort made across this country to bring more women into the political process, particularly at that level of office.

MARTIN: Ambassador Hunt, welcome back to you, also, to the program. We wanted to invite you because you work with women both nationally and internationally, and kind of, developing leadership skills. And so I wanted to ask, how does the U.S. compare to other countries in bringing women into legislative bodies as well as executive leadership positions?

Ambassador HUNT: I think it's a great question. I work in about 50 countries, and the U.S., a couple of years ago, was 69th out of 189 countries. In other words, there were 68 countries who had more women in parliament, in terms of Congress, and we have slipped now to 71st. Now, the reason for that, primarily, is because of quotas. And we know that Americans are allergic to quotas, but there are 97 countries in the world that have some kind of quota for women, either constitutionally or in some kind of electoral law. And the quotas may be in terms of political party or in terms of seats that are set aside for women-only votes et cetera. So, if you don't have a quota, you basically don't get above the 30 percent threshold because of all kinds of roadblocks. And when we see our own country, and how we're inching in tiny, tiny numbers, you know, to get to that 16 percent, you know, it's discouraging. I mean, the other way to say it is that our Houses of Congress are 84 percent men. And that has a different ring to it.

MARTIN: So, we're just a little too happy up in here? We're a little too happy about this 16 percent that we've been talking about here.

Ambassador HUNT: I mean, I'm not nearly as upbeat about this - when I look around the world, for example, the average is 18 percent. But that's when you're comparing the Arab states, you know, and sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is doing better than the United States. They're at 17.5 percent.

MARTIN: And why is that? Because of quotas?

Ambassador HUNT: Because of quotas, yes.

MARTIN: Ellen, I wanted to go back to the question that you - what you said earlier, which is that a lot of the, sort of, myths about women in politics have been dispensed with, but have they? And how do we know that? Is it in polling? Are people no longer willing to say I just don't believe a woman can do this job? How do we know that the attitudes of opposition to women in political life are dissipating?

Ms. MORAN: Well, the original question was about Senator Clinton's campaign, and certainly when you look at national polling, Democratic primary voters see her as very qualified, and experienced, and prepared, and ready to do the job, and I think that speaks to credibility, and having crossed a preparedness threshold for a woman candidate for president. When you look down the ticket, to Senate Congressional races down to state legislature, there's a whole body of evidence to show that, you know, women are seen as more honest brokers, a fresh face, sometimes they're seen as agents of change, and all of those things are quite positive.

Again, I would say, though, that the numbers speak for themselves, and that barriers do exist. And the one point, additionally, I'd like to make is that in electing any newcomers to any level of government, the biggest impediment still is incumbency, and the system. And one of the things, I think, that we've seen since the mid 90s, women have not benefited from redistricting as it has happened over the last couple of cycles. And also term limits have had an unintended consequence of actually making it a challenge for us as we try to recruit women into running for state legislative office. You know, that some of the women that we have helped elect are termed out very quickly so, that, I think, is one of the unintended consequences of an attempt to change the system for the better. But...

MARTIN: That's counter-intuitive, that's counter-intuitive. One would think it would be the opposite. Hold on, one second. If you could just pause for one second. If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're talking about how women are attaining, or not, political power across the ballot and around the world. I'm speaking with Debbie Walsh, Ambassador Swanee Hunt, and Ellen Moran. And, Debbie, you wanted to say something.

Ms. WALSH: Well, that issue of term limits is a really important one because term limits were supposed to be the thing that was going to change the whole system, and open the floodgates, and bring women in, and bring people of color in, and change the system. And what really happened, or what we saw is that women, in fact, do benefit from incumbency in the same way that men do. Incumbents, whether they're male or female, win about 98 percent of the time. And when term limits, for instance, first kicked in in Michigan in the state legislature, over something like 52 percent of the women who were in the legislature were termed out of office. The problem then was, there had to be recruitment of new women to run, and what we'd found was, really, from the research that we did, was that women, the way that we saw increases of women was we'd get a few women elected every cycle. Those women would then be incumbents and they would get reelected and a few new ones would get recruited and we would increase in that slow incremental growth. We used to get very frustrated by that slow incremental growth, but at least it was growth. What we saw with term limits was these women would keep getting termed out, but there wasn't the pool. There wasn't the new recruitment going on. The parties really weren't put - going out there, looking for women to run. And so, there was really a gap and a void, and women weren't filling it. And so that was really a problem. The parties were going out and filling those empty seats, those open seats, with more white men, frankly.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. WALSH: Well, they were filling them with people who look like them, and that's who's running most of the political parties out there, and so that's how they would fill those seats. So, it really fell upon many of the organizations out there, in the states, and many of those organizations aren't as strong as they could be, or should be, and there needs to be more effort and energy and working done on both sides of the aisle to make sure that there are women who are there to run, prepared and ready and asked to run when the time comes. When those open seats appear.

MARTIN: Ambassador Hunt?

Ambassador HUNT: Yeah, this is so interesting to me that we are saying that two barriers are incumbency and term limits. You know, because you would think well, those are opposites and so, I'm thinking here, what is deal? And what I am realizing is - and this is very helpful for me this morning, it really falls back on how excited women are about running for office. We have been really interesting research by Lawless and Fox who wrote this book, "It Takes a Candidate," and basically they are saying, even when you women and men who are exactly the same qualified, a quarter of - they were looking at 3,800 potential candidates, a quarter of the women saw themselves as likely, or very likely winners, compared to 37 percent of the men. So 25 percent compared to 37 percent and then if a woman lost, she was very unlikely to run and men - to run again. And men saw it as dress rehearsal. And so you have to keep - I'm agreeing with what Ellen and Debbie are saying, that you have to keep working and working and working and working to get women to run. But you know how you do it? If you talk to women about, you know, here is how you can have power. They are unlikely to respond. If you say to them, you know what? If you got into this position, you could do so much good for people in need. The women are much more likely to respond.

MARTIN: But you know what I'm hearing though? I'm hearing that it's not so much the voters who have cultural barriers to overcome, it's the gatekeepers. It's the party people.

Ambassador HUNT: But it's the women, too….

MARTIN: It's the people, too - but the women too, you are saying?

Ambassador HUNT: But inside of themselves - ourselves.

Ms WALSH.: But I think the gatekeepers are a huge issue. I think that there's - I think it's the women. It's the women themselves, but I think those gatekeepers are really important barriers and we have to look at that issue. And I think we also have to step back as well, and talk about why it matters to get these women in. You know what difference does it make? Because we're not here, I think all three of us would agree, that we are not here talking about the importance of bringing women in here just for the sake of fairness.

MARTIN: Well, Debbie, that leads to my question. That was in fact my next question. So, I would like to ask each of you, why does it matter? Because some people would say, it shouldn't.

Ms. WALSH: Well, what we know from the research that we've done at the center is that women make a difference when they are in office. We've looked at women serving, particularly at the state legislature level, because it is the highest level of office with a substantial concentration of women serving in it, and when we asked men and women who serve in legislatures, what they - what their priorities are, we find that women are far more likely, than their male colleagues, to have, as their top issue, priorities issues affecting women, families, and children. Women bring a different set of life experiences to the public policy process and those different life experiences have an impact on the kinds of issues that they make as a priority. They are more likely to be there representing the voice of people who aren't normally at the table. Not just women, but poor people, people who aren't represented when policy is being made and they also bring a sense of transparency to the process. They believe that government ought to be operating out in the open. And this is Democrats and Republicans, they believe that the system should be more transparent, more open and bring more people in. And we want more of those kinds of voices in the Democratic process.

MARTIN: Ambassador Hunt, you have particularly strong feelings…

Ambassador HUNT: I do. I do.

MARTIN: I think about why women need to be brought to the international arena, particularly, diplomacy...

Ambassador HUNT: Yeah.

MARITN: And national security, and if you could speak on that briefly?

Ambassador HUNT: I would love to. You know, first of all we have to say, we are not talking about all men and all women. You can find, you know, fabulous and terrible exceptions, to whatever we are saying here. But the research does show a general difference. You know, there is this idea now about soft power. This is an idea that Joe Nye came up with. He is a great name in international relations. Hard power is, you go after it, you know, you go after a problem and you mush it ill like Iraq. Soft power is, you develop such a profile as a country in the world, that you have enormous influence. And if we want soft power, then we need to elect a lot more women because what we find is that women - and by the way, the brain research is backing this up.

MARTIN: OK.

Ambassador HUNT: That women do have this bridge building, that they do have this empathy. That the female brain, this is from a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge University, the female brain is predominately hardwired for empathy and communication, and the male brain is hardwired for understanding and building systems. And society needs both the female and the male brain.

MARTIN: I know that some people out there would want to debate with you on that, but I do think it is fair to point out because you are actually a trained psychologist?

Ambassador HUNT: Well, I am.

MARTIN: You have a Ph.D. in psychology? But we are going to have to leave it there, Ambassador, I'm sorry. Swanee Hunt is a former Ambassador to Austria. She's also founding director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She joined us by phone from her office in Boston. We were also joined by Debbie Walsh. She's Director for the Center of American Women and Politics. She joined us from the studios at Rutgers University. I also want to point out that there are important fact sheets that the center has available. We will have a link to them online. You can talk about the progress of women in all these political offices. And Ellen Moran is the Executive Director of Emily's List. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studio. I thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. ELLEN MARON: Thank you.

Ambassador HUNT: Thanks for having us.

Ms. WALSH: Thanks for having us. Good bye.

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