Saturday, May 18, 2024


101413i-Janneke-HouseAs a candidate for Cambridge City Council, I am one of only five women among the 25 candidates in this race in which two incumbent councilwomen are leaving. Why aren’t more women engaging in the political process?

I believe it’s because women aren’t completely convinced it’s worth their time and energy to participate in a male-dominated political environment. There have been many articles written recently about the gender gap in politics. This is in part because of the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique,” which has been widely credited with igniting the women’s movement of the 1960s. She wrote her book when it was a radical notion for a woman to have a career of her own in the first place. Another reason for the increased attention is the record-breaking achievement of the 2012 election cycle – 98 women are now in Congress. Unfortunately, this is less than 20 percent of the Congressional seats, when women represent more than half of the U.S. population.

Women aren’t being kept out of politics so much as they are choosing not to engage. A study last year by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation showed that men are 40 percent more likely to consider running for office than women. Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, co-wrote a 2012 report called “Men Rule” that named seven reasons women are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition and willingness to run for elective office, including the perception of bias against women after the recent candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin and a dislike for the negativity encountered during campaigns.

A differing view is presented in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Sandberg argues that there are many reasons women do not hold equal power, but the big reason is that women are taught that they should stay out of power and in essence sabotage and limit their own careers and ambitions.

As a woman in politics, my experience is that women choose not to engage and “lean in” in politics. The political process is a winner-take-all mentality that does not appeal to women. Washington is experiencing unprecedented partisan gridlock. With our two parties’ refusal to compromise and the contentious political climate, it’s no wonder women aren’t willing to run for office. Why subject themselves to that process if compromise is futile?

But this does a disservice to the county. The assets women bring can potentially pull us out of the mess we are in. Women traditionally are more willing to compromise than men and are key to bringing civil discourse to the table. Research in the American Journal of Political Science titled “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect” claims that women do a better job at “logrolling, agenda-setting, coalition building and other deal-making activities.”

A 2010 study by researchers at Stanford University shows that women in Congress bring in more money for their districts and sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than their male counterparts. Women have a different understanding of needs in policy areas such as health care, transportation, education and jobs. Women in elected office bring new perspectives to issues, which increases the likelihood of conceiving and implementing effective solutions to social, economic and environmental problems.

Women understand how to use civil discourse and compromise to accommodate many different views rather than the mentality that someone must win and someone must lose. Women have the ability to shift the political landscape to something more sensible.

Rather than viewing politics as a futile exercise, women should view participation in politics as an opportunity. There is always talk of breaking the glass ceiling – intractable in the private sector, but in the public sector women have every chance to be just as effective lawmakers as men. Societal pressure to adhere to rigid gender roles that discouraged women from running for office have largely disappeared. They are paid the same salary as their male colleagues in office, so there is no pay inequity.

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University states that in every presidential election since 1980, the proportion of female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of male adults who voted. An obvious conclusion would be that women need to take a bigger part in the political world. An injection of more involvement of women (and men) with a woman’s skill set of listening well, inclusiveness and collaboration is exactly what Washington (and Cambridge) should be looking for.

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Janneke House is a candidate for City Council.