An elected official recently told a friend of mine about her experience being the only woman in a budget meeting. After several minutes of listening to her male counterparts discuss cutting funding for mammograms, she asked if they knew what a mammogram was. They did not. Her short explanation caused the committee to keep mammograms in the budget.
It wasn't that her colleagues didn't care about this women's issue, it's that they didn't understand it. Likely unintentionally, these decision-makers were focusing on the needs of people like them.
Whether decisions are being made about mammograms, taking on a risky new project or how bonuses are allocated, it pays to have women in the room – business studies show that mixed-gender teams perform better than all-male teams, and they are more egalitarian.
In my work with women in male-dominated industries, we discuss how one long-term strategy to improve workplace dynamics for women is to recruit more women into the industry. Government is no exception. More women in elected office doesn't just improve work culture for the women who are in government (as we saw in the above example), it helps ensure women's needs are considered in public policy decisions.
To learn more about the impact of having more women in office and what it will take to achieve parity, I spoke with Clare Bresnahan, Executive Director of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit that is changing culture to inspire more women and girls to run for office.
In the week immediately following Election Day this year, a record 2,700 women pledged to run for office, and 2,200 women joined the She Should Run Incubator, which provides practical, actionable guidance they’ll need to launch their path to leadership.
Now more than ever, women are ready to run for office.
Lelia Gowland: Why should women’s equal representation in government be a priority?
Clare Bresnahan: At all the different levels of government, only 20-24% of the people in elected office are female. We can’t expect a healthy, representative democracy to function by shutting out half the population from decision making.
As studies from the corporate world demonstrate that a diversity of perspectives improves outcomes, there’s an awakening in our culture of the need to have diverse voices to better represent voters, constituents, and consumers.
At She Should Run, our goal is to add the much needed voices of women from all different backgrounds and walks of life: party, ethnicity, career, economic background, etc.
Gowland: When did you first get interested in this work?
Bresnahan: When my aunt took me to DC for the first time when I was 8, I had my own "Hamilton" moment. I thought, “This is bigger than me. I want to be ‘in the room where it happens.’ I have to be part of the process.”
As I’ve grown up, I felt like I had to be here because there are important voices that aren’t heard in our culture and in our government. It’s been an opportunity to live up to that childhood dream. I want other little third grade girls to know what is possible.
Gowland: What role do you see She Should Run having in the larger movement toward equal representation for women?
Bresnahan: Millennial women see a lot of ways to effect change, whether they’re rocking it out in nonprofits, starting their own social venture or working up the corporate ladder. There are more options to effect change than ever before. We’re making the case for using your talents and making an impact by running for office.
There are 500,000 elected positions in our country; most of them are local. If we’re going to get half of those positions to be women, we need hundreds of thousands of women to run for office. We’re inviting women to the table to make change.
Gowland: What do you wish people knew?
Bresnahan: I’d want them to know that it can be easy to get involved in this movement. Politics can seem removed from our everyday lives, and often the perception is that you have to be a political animal to run for office or to get involved in the cause of women’s equal representation. At She Should Run, we’re focused on meeting you where you are.
Why wait for the perfect, right moment? Ask a woman to run (or nominate yourself!) to consider a future run.
Gowland: Finally, how do you think this election influences the movement?
Bresnahan: People are hungry for new types of candidates.
When Minnesota elected Ilhan Omar to its state legislature on November 8th, Omar became America’s first Somali-American lawmaker. As an organizer and former refugee, we saw in her candidacy a new way to prepare for elected office. It can be through your unique life story. It can be through activism.
The equation for who’s in office is changing. It doesn’t have to be law school plus corporate jobs equals elected official. The American people are craving different kinds of leaders, and our job is to find more women to put into that equation.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.