The power of a question

For most women – including me – it started with a question. A colleague or friend asks, “Hey, would you ever consider it?” That question plants the seed … “Maybe, perhaps I could … win it.”

What’s “it”?

Running for elected office. Studies tell us women are less likely to consider running for political office than men. Maybe we’re more likely to think politics is ugly, or less likely to think we can balance it with family, but because we are less likely to consider running, sometimes we need to be asked.

{mosads}One hundred years ago, in 1916, Jeannette Rankin from Montana became the first woman elected to Congress. Today, I serve in the House of Representatives with 84 women. We are as diverse as the places we represent and yet, as I talk to my colleagues, we all agree on one thing: We have more work to do.  Even though there are a record number of women in Congress, we’re still just 20 percent of the total. In fact, many of us made history just by running.

We’re not alone in that. From Congress to state legislatures to governor’s and mayor’s offices, women represent about one in five elected officials. That figure has remained relatively consistent since the 1990s. We’ve plateaued. 

We need more women at all levels of government – but not just for parity’s sake. I believe Congress, and the country, work best when all voices are represented. Women have concerns that are distinct from men’s, and we have different ways of approaching problems. The more different voices we can engage in the national conversation, the better the outcome is going to be. While I don’t believe that a discussion about more diversity in our elected officials should be limited to gender, this Women’s History Month, I want to focus on women specifically.  

Why are women underrepresented? It is not because women are less qualified than men. As it always is in politics, part of the answer is money and the things that money buys, specifically training and organizational support to run an effective campaign. According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, out of many thousands of political action committees, only 70 give predominantly to women. Moreover, women donors give less than their male counterparts, even at the highest levels.

Part of the answer, though, is women. As I said above: often, we’re just less likely to consider office. Before I was approached to run for office, even though I’d been a presidentially appointed United States attorney and served as deputy mayor of Indianapolis, I’d never seriously considered running for office. Additionally, once I was asked – by young men in the Republican Party – I still had a lot of questions, and even doubts, that I grappled with.

Last year, the Procter & Gamble brand Always ran a powerful campaign titled “Like a Girl.” They asked little girls to run, throw, and fight “Like a Girl.” These girls ran as fast as they could and threw hard and directly.

Then older girls and boys were asked to do the same thing.

The older girls flailed their arms, worried about their hair or weakly tossed their hand.

By their teenage years not one young woman was running like a girl should: with power.

The Always commercial illustrated a problem that we also find in public service, confidence.  This ‘confidence gap’ is holding women back from adding their voice to the debate and discussion.

According to a recent study conducted by American University and Loyola Marymount University, when you ask high schoolers if they would consider running for elected office, young men are twice as likely as young women to say they would run. Additionally, the study found that men are 60 percent more likely than women to say they are ‘very qualified’ for office. 

That gap won’t change on its own. We need to make the change, and it cannot take another 100 years to do it.

This Women’s History Month, I not only want to directly encourage more women to run for office, I want to encourage more Americans to ASK the women they know – the mother who volunteers at every school function, the small business owner who is growing her company, the bright young women in your college classroom – “Hey, would you ever consider it?”

By asking, we’ll find more women willing to run, and willing to change our country. 

Brooks has represented Indiana’s 5th Congressional District since 2013. She sits on the Energy and Commerce and the Ethics committees.

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