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Does gender matter in politics?: Despite high-profile wins, politics still remains a male-dominated field

December 11, 2006

1992 was dubbed the "Year of the Woman," when four women were elected to the U.S. Senate, but 2006 may be seen as the beginning of a new women's political movement, says Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that's working to advance women in political office.

Indiana has made some strides, but 85 years after women won the hard-fought right to vote, the number of women in elected office at the national level hasn't changed significantly in more than a quarter-century. Women still constitute little more than 15 percent of Congress in spite of being the majority of our population.

There are a few high-profile women, like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (DCalif.), but women are still a rarity in the maledominated world of government and politics.

The United States lags far behind the rest of the global community when it comes to women in high-ranking political offices. Rwanda holds the top spot, with the United States coming in at a distant 67, one step above Bangladesh, according to a study by Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments.

On the local level, Indiana moved from 30th to 23rd in the rankings of women in government, exiting the worst-states category, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research, but participation still remains low. What more can be done to encourage women to seek elected office?

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman says that, although she has been encouraged by the number of women involved in government during her political tenure, she has seen the numbers dwindle since 1994. That decline has happened despite programs and workshops aimed at men toring women interested in politics, such as the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, Camp Bayh, Girls State and Project Citizen, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

"Generally speaking, women believe they have to be overqualified to seek a position, where most men believe they were born qualified for it," Skillman said. "I think that women need to have more role models in government and need to see that elected office is an honorable profession."

Research backs up Skillman's assessment. Brown University professor Jennifer Lawless and Union College professor Richard Fox studied the reasons women don't run for office. They found that 26 percent of the men they surveyed felt very qualified for public office, compared to 14 percent of women.

State Sen. Teresa Lubbers (R-Indianapolis) said that she works with the Lugar series to help mentor women and encourage them to serve on a campaign, board or commission. Progress is being made, she says, but more needs to be done.

"We need to give girls opportunities and expose them to government even at the high school and college level," she said. "We have to encourage women to share their talents in this arena, and when they run for office, support them whether they win or not."

Lubbers says in spite of the large numbers of women studying political science on the college level, when it comes to accepting an appointed position or running for elected office, women still view it as risky.

"They know they are putting themselves in an arena where people will like you and dislike you a lot," she said.

Skillman agrees, saying that women often believe they have to perform flawlessly in an elected position to gain credibility while juggling other aspects of their lives. She was an elected official before becoming a mother, so her children grew up seeing mom in the public eye.

Melissa Proffitt Reese, a partner with Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller LLP, also serves as the vice chairwoman for the Marion County Republican Central Committee. Women are still at the mercy of 1950s stereotypes suggesting women are tied to the home and are better suited for supporting roles instead of leadership ones, Reese said. Historically, leadership has resided with men and people in power do not readily give it up, she added.

"Power is an important component of self-perceived success," she said.

When it comes to women in positions of leadership, Reese said, the United States still lags behind our European and Asian counterparts.

When Kathy Davis was appointed Indiana's lieutenant governor shortly after Gov. Frank O'Bannon's death, she had no real political background. But Davis's degrees in engineer ing and business were important assets.

Government and politics can offer women a very stimulating environment in which to use their talents, but Davis wonders if the barrage of negative political ads turns women off pursuing political office.

"It is one thing to pursue a role in government and another thing to pursue a role in politics," Davis said. "I came into an appointed position working for 15 months with Joe Kernan and then had a campaign where it required a different set of skills. We had to have broader communication with people, letting them know who we were and what we stood for."

Today, Davis is working on new technology called Model Indiana that will help policymakers predict the long-term effects of policy decisions made in areas such as education, health care, and economic development. She is unsure whether she'll seek public office in the future.

Ann DeLaney, an attorney with India n a p o l i s - b a s e d DeLaney & DeLaney LLC, says campaigning as a running mate is a lot different than running for a highlevel political office on your own. The former chairwoman of the Indiana Democratic Party said that over the years there has been little attempt by either of the parties to nominate a woman for political leadership. The reason, she says, is financial-support just isn't there for women like it is for men.

"It costs so much to win a statewide office, and it is so much harder for women to raise the kind of money it takes to win," she said. "Money is just too important."

Despite the financial challenges, there are ways women can gain political clout, DeLaney said. One way is working at the precinct level to get to know the voters as well as the candidates. Pounding the pavement paid off for Democrat Terri Austin, a state representative from Anderson.

"Rep. Terri Austin got out there, walked her district, got to know the voters personally and was elected in spite of the personal attacks and money that was

spent against her," DeLaney said.

With a net increase of 10 women elected to the U.S. House, Reese and others are hopeful that this is a positive sign.

"I think women have been hesitant to become involved because there haven't been many women in front of them who were trailblazers, and that is what we need in high-level positions," Reese said. "With Nancy (Pelosi) being elected, I think this is a huge step forward."

With speculation that 2008 may be the year that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice runs for president, are Americans ready to elect a woman? A Gallup poll conducted just prior to the November election found 6 in 10 say it's time for a female commander-in-chief.

"I do believe we will see a woman U.S. president in my lifetime," Skillman said. "When we see women in higher elected offices, it is a great encouragement for others to aim high as well."
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