Celinda Lake

(WOMENSENEWS)– As I reflect on Women’s History Month and the gains we have made in the political world, I see a future with plenty of room to improve.

Yes, more women hold elected office; yes, there is still work to be done.

While over two-thirds of adults think that, in general, women and men make equally good political leaders, women are only 17 percent of U.S. Congress. Of the 50 states, female governors lead only eight.

Voters point to many reasons for the lag in female officeholders, including a lack of receptiveness to such women as well as a sense of different standards for male and female candidates.

Last year’s campaign by Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination and Sarah Palin for the vice presidency on the GOP ticket may move the needle on that. Those candidates showed women can make serious bids. They are expected to mightily inspire other women to run for office.

Yet the low numbers of women in office and some polling data still speak to the challenge that remains.

Is America Ready?

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, June 16-July 16, 2008, among 2,250 adults nationwide, a majority of Americans think the country is not ready to elect a woman as president (51 percent say this is a major reason), while more than 4-in-10 say women in politics are held back by men.

A sizable proportion of Americans–roughly 4-in-10–also see discrimination against women as a major factor in the scarcity of high-ranking female lawmakers.

While men and women agree that these are the inhibitors to female leadership, women hold this view more intensely.

On the idea that the country is not ready to elect a woman, 56 percent of women call this a major factor versus 46 percent of men. On the idea that women are held back by men there is again a perception gender gap, with 48 percent of women holding this view compared with 37 percent of men. When it comes to discrimination against women you find 45 percent of women seeing it that way compared to 30 percent of men.

A Lifetime Television survey conducted after the November 2008 elections asked women about the requirements for male and female candidates. An overwhelming 65 percent said that men and women are held to different standards. When running for elective office, only 29 percent said requirements were the same.and women are held to different standards. When running for elective office, only 29 percent said that the requirements were the same. This phone survey was conducted by Lake Research Partners and WomanTrend, a division of the polling company, on behalf of Lifetime Television from November 21-24, 2008. It included a nationally representative sample of 600 women ages 18 and older.

Women See More Challenges

Women considered it more challenging for female candidates to be taken seriously by media and the voters. Seventy nine percent of women said men had less trouble expressing their seriousness to the electorate and 71 percent said it was less difficult for them to convince the media of their legitimacy.

Despite all this, the public does not think women should stay away from elected office.

In other research, we have found that voters want the best candidate, male or female.

In the Pew study, a strong majority of respondents, 69 percent, rate women and men as equally good political leaders. Only 21 percent prefer men, while 6 percent favor women.

Few attribute the small number of women in elected office to ideas such as women not being as good as men at leadership (16 percent say it’s a major reason) or women not being tough enough for politics (that’s 14 percent).

In the Lifetime survey, when women were asked to select from a list of nine possible reasons why fewer women hold elected office, 20 percent said the perception of lack of experience could be blamed. An equal number said that women are not perceived as tough enough. Eleven percent believed women would prefer to devote their attention to their family and not to politics. The remaining answer choices were in the single digits.

Women Enjoy Some Advantage

In policy areas, female leaders are judged to be better than men at dealing with social issues such as health care and education, while their male counterparts have a lead in dealing with crime, public safety and national security. The economy and fiscal issues are another point of vulnerability for female candidates.

Communicating strength and expertise on these traditionally male areas is critical for women, especially in today’s turbulent economy.

The Pew research also indicated that female politicians have the respect of female voters in key areas. By a 13-point margin (48 percent of women to 35 percent among men), women say that female leaders exhibit the trait of working out compromise. Women are more likely than men to say that female leaders better represent their interests (38 percent among women to 18 percent of men).

If female candidates can connect with the female electorate, that can go a long way to improve their chances.

However, as we saw in both the 2006 and 2008 elections, younger female voters tend to be less supportive of female candidates and gender is less important than agenda and qualifications to them.

Female leaders also have advantages over male elected officials in personal traits, according to the Pew survey.

As a whole, women are seen as more compassionate (80 percent say more true of women than men), creative (62 percent), outgoing (47 percent), intelligent (38 percent), and honest (50 percent). On some scores women and men come up equal: just as ambitious (34 percent each) and hardworking (28 percent each).

One area of vulnerability is the perception that women aren’t decisive. In this same Pew study, respondents gave male candidates a doubled-digit advantage over women on this key trait.

The lesson here is that while female candidates may have an edge in the compassion and honesty traits, they need to make a concerted effort to prove their ability to lead and make decisions to overcome this bias.

Of course specific contests where women are on the ballot are unique and each one presents its own challenges.

Women need to test the mood of their potential constituency, tailor their messages to their districts or states, and find ways to prove that they are indeed the best candidates regardless of gender.

If they do this successfully, they will certainly give us all more to celebrate next March.

Celinda Lake is a pollster and political strategist for Democrats and progressives. She is president of Lake Research Partners, with expertise in electing female candidates and framing issues to female voters. American Politics calls Lake a "super-strategist or, better yet, the Godmother," and Working Woman says she is "arguably the most influential woman in her field."

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