When closing the gender divide, an elected woman’s work is never done
By Marjorie Childress
The number of female legislators in New Mexico is at a record high—30 percent going into the 2010 elections. That's higher than the national average of 24 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More women are taking on professions that tend to produce elected officials. But there's still a gender gap.
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The primary reason, according to those who study the intersection of women and politics, is that women don’t run for office as much as men, even though they’re just as likely as a man to win.
“If more women ran, we’d have a 50-50 split, because it’s not a question of qualifications or that women are less likely to win,” says Reena Szczepanski, executive director of Emerge New Mexico, an organization dedicated to increasing the representation of Democratic women in office.
“There are a lot of myths out there about people being less likely to elect a woman, but that’s not the case,” said Szczepanski. “When women run, they’re just as likely as a man to win.”
Szczepanski references the research of American University Professor Jennifer Lawless, who found that women in professions that typically lead to political careers are one-third less likely than men to consider running. And when they have considered it, they're still one-third less likely to actually run.
According to Lawless, there are three primary reasons that women don’t run: They have family responsibilities; they think they’re not as qualified; and they simply aren’t recruited.
“Women are 10 times more likely to be responsible for the majority of household tasks and childcare,” Lawless says, “even those women in the top echelon of careers.” In those instances, elected positions are an unappealing third job, she adds.
“Women are also substantially less likely than men to receive the encouragement to run,” she continues. “And in their own self assessments, women who have the same résumé as men often don’t see themselves as qualified to run while those same men do feel qualified.”
In research conducted by Lawless and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University in 2001, 40 percent of women felt qualified to run for elected office compared to 60 percent of men with similar qualifications.
But, says Lawless, “there’s no voter bias against women on Election Day. There are equal proportions who would always vote for a woman as there are who would always vote for a man.”
When women put their hat in the ring they fare as well as their male counterparts—even though there’s gender stereotyping, she says, and the media often treats women differently.
“Most women don’t have to defend during an electoral race that they are a woman, per se,” Lawless says, “but there is still a notion that they have to defend how they balance the traditional gender roles with being in politics.” Voters and media question how a female candidate will manage it all, so women have to address that concern in their campaigns, she says. “But in the end, voters still let them decide the answer to that.”
The research conducted by Lawless back in 2001 didn’t look at how race or ethnicity factor into whether women run, because the sample of people of color was too small. The professions studied are disproportionately made up of white men. That’s a discrepancy in the research that a new study should rectify this year, Lawless says. Even so, she says the limited data from 2001 shows the conclusions are consistent across racial and ethnic lines.
Lawless’ research tells Szczepanski that a key factor in closing the gender gap at the Roundhouse, as well as in other governance entities, is recruitment.
“We actually ask women directly to run,” Szczepanski says, “letting them know who recommended them and why. People should think about the women in their lives, and ask themselves, Would she make a good legislator?”
The Power of Suggestion
Three women serving in the Legislature confirmed Lawless’ findings, anecdotally, in describing how they came to their elected office. They tell the Alibi that receiving mentorship by women in elected positions or by being asked directly—and even just hearing it as a suggestion—led to the initial steps they took to achieve their positions.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, says she got the idea to run for office because she didn’t agree with the policies of the longtime senator in her area. But she relied on other female politicians for advice and encouragement—Nadyne Bicknell, who had served on the Albuquerque City Council in the 1980s, and Pauline Garcia, who served on the Albuquerque Public School Board.
“I was discouraged by my own party at the time from challenging a man who’d been in for years and was part of the political landscape,” she says. But mentoring was key to Lopez. “I’d had friends, mentors who held public office. I asked them to guide me when I decided to run for office.”
She ran for the Senate 15 years ago, becoming the youngest woman ever to serve at that time. Lopez ran before becoming a parent and has since raised her child as a single mother while serving in the Senate.
State Rep. Eleanor Chavez, D-Albuquerque has a background in labor organizing and community service. She says she’d long thought about making a run for the state Legislature but didn’t go for it because she was parenting four children.
“I had the thought in the back of my mind for a number of years but was busy raising kids,” Chavez says. “My youngest was graduating from high school, and suddenly, I had time.” She'd always been involved in her kids' education and supported them in their after school activities. “I didn’t want to miss out on that. ... Being gone during the session I think would have caused too much of a strain on them.”
Then a friend called and asked her to run, just as her youngest daughter was finishing up high school. “The timing could not have been more perfect,” says Chavez, who’s beginning her second term representing District 13 on the Westside.
State Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, told the Alibi she had also been a busy parent and didn’t consider serving until her kids were grown. At that point, her community involvement included being a room mother and Sunday school teacher.
Wallace is in her second decade representing District 43, but she was first elected to the Los Alamos County Council in the early ’80s. Since she was active in the county Republican party, someone made the suggestion that she run for office. “They said, Jeannette, you’d be good at that.”
Lopez, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, tells a story about her first day at the Roundhouse 15 years ago. She was walking through the halls looking for her office when a couple of lobbyists asked her to make copies for them. “I was like, Wow, so this is what it’s all about,” she remembers. “Times have changed since then.” It’s accepted now that women are part of the pool of elected officials and not just staff or secretaries. “But it’s a gradual process.”
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
More is also expected of women, she adds. “You have to know your information very well. We are still, in some aspects, having to prove ourselves, while still doing all the other things that society expects of us.”
Lopez cares for her mother in addition to her son, Lorenzo, who sometimes joins his senator mom on the floor of the Roundhouse. She says it’s been challenging, that she’s been unable to pursue some avenues she might have chosen outside of public service. But she says the impact she’s able to make on policy has been worth it.
Wallace says that the greater number of men in the Legislature can make it feel like a boy’s club. It’s not so much a question of whether things have changed, she says; it's a matter of who’s in office.
“If there’s a little cluster [of men], you can feel left out,” she says. “I don’t think it’s changed that much. It comes and goes depending on who’s been elected.”
Wallace dislikes the perception that women are most valuable for their knowledge of “female'” issues like health care and education. “I'm interested in all of it,” she says. “Budgets are my thing. I can look at things in the budget and say, This is a waste of money or, This is important.”
Chavez says that sexism still exists. It’s especially prevalent in male titles—“chairman,” for example—used even when a woman holds the position.
Still, she maintains that the female perspective is important to policy-making because women are usually responsible for caring for children and elderly parents. And she says women are more likely to sponsor legislation related to domestic violence or childcare because they tend to understand the impacts. “How many of us have struggled to make sure that our kids had quality childcare?” she asks. “How many of us comforted a friend who was in a violent relationship?”
But in the end, Chavez circles around to a notion very similar to those of Wallace and Lopez: Women bring a lot to the table beyond issues most closely related to gender roles.
“What matters even more is one’s perspective when it comes to social issues and issues of economic justice and whether or not one feels a responsibility to protect the social safety net,” Chavez says.
Szczepanski of Emerge New Mexico adds that gender balance in an elected body is vital, and that it’s a goal everyone benefits from.
“It’s really important to have a representative government. We need to have faces in our capital that represent the populace equally," she says. "It’s alarming if we aren’t equally represented.”
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