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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Women make up more than half of the country's voting population yet they account for less than 20 percent of those serving in Congress. There are many reasons for that and, as NPR's Tamara Keith dug into it, she found one explanation came up again and again: Women don't necessarily look in the mirror and see a politician.

Tamara brings us this story as part of a series on women and politics that we're calling She Votes.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When Monica Youngblood got the call, she thought she was being punked.

MONICA YOUNG: Like, "MTV Punk'd." I was like what is he talking about.

KEITH: Youngblood is now a Republican representing Albuquerque in the New Mexico House of Representatives. But when she got that call, she was a mom and a real estate agent who had been volunteering on other people's campaigns for about a decade. The call came from a man she had helped get elected and he told her...

YOUNG: It's your time. We need people like you in Santa Fe. We need a voice like yours who's lived here and been through what you've been through, and I think you really need to consider it.

KEITH: When she realized it wasn't a joke, Youngblood had a lot of questions and self doubt.

YOUNG: Thoughts from: am I qualified to do this, do we have the time, it will be a sacrifice not only to my profession but my family, my kids.

KEITH: It took a few more phone calls and several family conversations to convince Youngblood to run. She did, she won and this year she's running for re-election unopposed. But this initial reluctance is quite common among female candidates, says Sue Ellspermann, the lieutenant governor of Indiana.

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR SUE ELLSPERMANN: You need to be asked. Women are still not likely to just take that step on their own.

KEITH: Ellspermann speaks from experience. She now works to recruit female candidates to run in down ballot races, as part of the Republican State Leadership Committee's Right Women Right Now initiative. But five years ago, she couldn't imagine herself as a candidate.

ELLSPERMANN: When they asked me to consider running, I said oh no, I haven't run for anything since high school student council. So they said: Oh, just think about it.

KEITH: Ellspermann has a Ph.D. in industrial engineering and owned her own business. And yet, she was convinced she wasn't qualified.

Brenda Major is a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

BRENDA MAJORS: I'm not surprised. It makes sense, given what we know about women and confidence and self-confidence.

KEITH: Major's research finds women have less confidence in their own abilities, judge themselves harshly even when they are successful and carry failures as more of a burden than men do.

MAJORS: So many competent capable women are basically selecting themselves out of leadership positions. And I think that, you know, we've all wrestled with this. I mean I know it personally. I know it first hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KEITH: Its 7:30 in the morning and about a dozen female Members of Congress are bundled against a cold spring rain, practicing softball. They'll play in a charity game later this year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Alright, Donna is running. Let's get her.

KEITH: Maryland Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards plays first base. She was also just named chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program, which aims to recruit winning candidates. But Edwards herself was initially a reluctant candidate.

REPRESENTATIVE DONNA EDWARDS: I actually went around to a whole bunch of other people, most of whom held elective office already and all of them begged out. And it really wasn't until the last moment. I got up one morning and I just said: Donna, you've asked everybody. Why don't you run?

KEITH: She confirms most women have to be asked not once, but repeatedly.

EDWARDS: We try to get them to yes. The question is always: How do we get them to yes. What is their concern, what's the biggest thing that's on their checklist.

KEITH: And even then, researchers who look at these things say men are still much more likely to get asked to run.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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