Conference Readies Women to Run for Political Office

Jan 21, 2012

Women outnumber men in the U.S. according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but their numbers are few when it comes to elected office be it on the local, state or federal level. A national movement is trying to change that by teaching women about the political process. One such event was held in Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Pennsylvania Near the Bottom

Pennsylvania ranks 42 in the nation when it comes to women holding elected office. Out of 50 state senators, 11 are women, and out of 203 representatives, 33 are women. The Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University aims to increase the female presence in politics and public policy through events such as Saturday's Ready to Run Conference.

"We need to run campaigns that are very viable, very professional, that are very excellent campaigns that people can remember whether we win or lose," said Valerie McDonald Roberts, Manager for the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate. She also held the office when it was an elected position.

Roberts was on a panel at the event, which drew about 75 women from Allegheny County and surrounding areas. She said there are several reasons there aren't more women in politics.

"We have been marginalized for so many years. We are dealing with a deficit, a structural deficit that has been rolling over year after year after year with women and minorities not being at the seat of the table," Roberts said.

That was the prevailing feeling in the room — that breaking into the so-called "Good Old Boys" system is extremely hard to do, but not impossible if women can learn to be heard and learn to be confident.

"To be aggressive, to be focused, to not only want a seat at the table, but to take it. It is not going to be given to you, you need to know how to take it just like men have for hundreds and hundreds of years," said Roberts.

But, it seems that every campaign season there's an aggressive woman who ends up getting labeled negatively as a ball-buster, witch, or something that rhymes with 'witch,' but Roberts said that's just become a reality in politics.

"We have to understand that there is a double standard, we are not going to defeat that double standard, but we need to get around that double standard," she said.

Money Talks

Panelist Deb Sofield is an executive speech and presentation coach. She said in the political arena, reality is harsh. When a male candidate cries, people see him as sensitive; when a woman cries, she's labeled as overly emotional or crazy. While there was a lot of talk about institutional challenges, and that double standard, the main obstacle facing women who want to run for office is money.

"It's an expensive game. You've gotta build your network then make your net work. What you have to do is find some way for people to financially put you where you need to be," said Sofield.

An afternoon session was focused solely on the financial aspect of running for office. Only a handful of the women in attendance are currently thinking of running for office soon, and they all expressed discomfort with asking for money. That is true of Stephanie Gallagher. She's currently a supervisor of Buffalo Township, Washington County, but is considering a run for state office. She says she knows she has to overcome her reluctance to ask for money.

"It's a very humbling experience. You don't really want to ask people. You're hoping they just know you need it and that's not always the case. The key is to ask," she said.

Knowing the Game

Panelists touched on a wide variety of topics, including body language, speech patterns, ways to stand, and hand shaking. Organizers wouldn't allow reporting of the actual panel and discussions in an effort to allow the speakers and participants to feel comfortable being as open and honest as possible.

Overall, Gallagher said the experience was an empowering one. "You just have to stand your ground and know your beliefs and just do what you feel is the right thing to do," she said. "I'm ready to stand a bigger ground and push more positive action to another level."

The overriding message of the day to the women was to know what they're talking about, and that if women want to be taken seriously, they have to do their homework before stepping into the public eye.

"Don't go out there because someone says you should run for office and you think it's a good idea. You don't want to embarrass yourself. If you don't do due diligence and don't do an assessment to see if everything is feasible, you don't want to embarrass yourself, you don't want to get out there and cause embarrassment for other women," said Valerie McDonald Roberts.

Ready to Run events will be held in other U.S. cities in the next few months, mostly with the goal of jump starting some campaigns for the 2012 election cycle and beyond.