To win in politics, women must run as they are

To win in politics, women must run as they are
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Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the biggest hurdle to equal gender representation in politics was convincing women to run. Although women historically would win at the same rates as men, there were several reasons why women would choose not to run for office. Women with political ambitions kept them dormant because of a lack of party support and encouragement, or they didn’t know where and how to enter the political realm. Women who would make great candidates simply did not see government as a place to get things done, such that the idea of running for office never crossed their minds.

Any woman could easily see the gendered barriers to running of office: child or household care still falling primarily on women’s shoulders; sexism from adversaries and allies alike; and the lingering notion that they had to be twice as qualified to get half as far. According to research by the Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeePro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget Progressives push White House to overturn wage ruling Lawmakers, Martin Luther King III discuss federal responses to systematic racism MORE Family Foundation, women also deeply doubted their own qualifications, thereby setting personal expectations higher than they needed to be.


The election Donald Trump changed all of that.


Women woke up on Nov. 9, 2016, to find a man with no political or military experience had ascended to the most powerful position in the country, and probably the world. Overnight, the idea of “not being qualified” disappeared. Since then, tens of thousands of women have raised their hands to consider a run for public office — 12,000 of whom have been trained by my organization, VoteRunLead. President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE’s election was the motivation they needed to say “yes” to running for office.

Women’s ambitions were not the only thing to change the day after President Trump’s election. The political landscape shifted: hyper-partisanship went local; the reliance on polls and politicos for insider knowledge lost its value; new voters turned out in droves; and the use (and misuse) of social media tools have all dramatically changed what it means to run a successful campaign. Women who are new to politics have to run in new ways if they want to win. Here’s how:

First, they have to run as they are. Yes, that means running unapologetically as a woman, and understanding that the experiences that brought them to this decision are the foundation of their expertise. Women who trust themselves and believe they are the best candidate for the position are better able to communicate that to audiences who now expect a different level of authenticity and relatability.

In order to win, women have to be trained to run “as a woman.” First-time candidates and politicos alike need to understand that running as you are means a level of civic literacy as well as common sense and emotional resonance specific to women’s life experiences and leadership. Newcomers have to run effective campaigns without losing the passion that brought them to this decision in the first place. Experienced political women must employ more vulnerable ways to connect with voters. We have been teaching women how to run as you are and it works: 70 percent of VoteRunLead’s first-time candidates won in 2017 and, starting today, we are partnering with the coworking giant WeWork to bring training across the country.

Second, women who win play insider politics and leverage their outsider status at the same time.

So many of our first time candidates at VoteRunLead are surprised by the resources locked behind the doors of political parties. They find that seniority is valued over viability and fresh voices but quickly learn that they need to build relationships with party leaders to access voter files or keep campaign costs down. Yet in order to win in today’s climate, they must continue to maintain and communicate their outsider status by demonstrating how they will bring leadership skills from other arenas into government and how they are not beholden to partisanship.

Third, women who win pivot from identity to issue. In 2016, a 33-year-old, hijab-wearing refugee and mother-of-three became the highest-ranking Somali-American elected official in the United States, winning a seat in the Minnesota state legislature. The multiple identities of Ilhan Omar — immigrant, mother, woman of color — are galvanizing, but her platform championing economic opportunity for new Americans and affordable access to higher education won her the election. Danica Roem, the first trans woman elected to the Virginia legislature in 2017, made national headlines but ran and won on traffic, jobs, schools and equality.

Barrier-breaking women will continue to garner resources and attract media attention as “firsts,” but voters need to see a focus on hometown issues. Winners do both: leverage their gender and other identities as assets and speak powerfully about how their experiences and ideas will benefit the community.

Fourth, women who win engage in the hard stuff. Winning women are willing to have tough conversations with voters — even if it means losing some votes — to show conviction. In today’s hyper partisan environment, pandering or convincing others that your viewpoint is the only way forward no longer are effective. Demonstrating leadership and engaging voters who disagree builds trust about how female candidates will represent their constituents.

Nationally, this means women who run to win have a stance on federal policy even if they can’t legislate on it. Culturally, they must be willing to share their vulnerabilities, such as their #MeToo stories, and understand the impact of the women’s movement on our culture.

The skills needed to win in 2018 are those needed to govern in 2019. With more than 519,000 local and state elected offices in the country still 78 percent male, it is likely that only one or two women will serve on a local body. Newly elected women will still have to play the role of “first,” even if there are two of them. They need to bring their identities and their issues to government and stand by their convictions, remembering what motivated them to get there and who elected them. They need to change politics, not have politics change them, and to govern as they are.

Erin Vilard is the founder of VoteRunLead, the country’s largest and most diverse training organization for women to run and win. The organization is launching Women’s Leadership Works, a national partnership with WeWork to bring #RunAsYouAre training sessions to its coworking offices.