Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 09 December 2011 00:00
Most are aware that the United States elects a lower percentage of women officials to public office than many other countries, but even so, Sam Bennet’s experience may come as a shock. Bennet, president of The Women’s Campaign Forum, recently delivered the keynote address at the first ever South Asian Regional Conference on Women’s Political Leadership, held in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“So there I am in Bangladesh, having to apologize because half of the nations there— Nepal, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Malta- have more women in elected office than we do in America,” said Bennet.
The low percentage of women leaders in not only politics, but business as well, is what prompted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to helm the panel “Getting Off the Sidelines: A Conversation About the Urgency of Women’s Political, Community and Business Leadership Today,” at Hofstra University on Friday, Dec. 2, the kick-off event for Lifetime Television’s nonpartisan 2012 “Every Woman Counts” campaign. Sharing the stage with Gillibrand were Bennet, Tiffany Dufu (president, the White House Project), Geri Barish (founder and president, 1 in 9 Foundation), and newly-elected North Hempstead Councilman Anna Kaplan.
Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra University, also commented on the low number of women elected representatives in his introduction to the panel. “It is astonishing to me— just astonishing—that the United States ranks 90th in the world among countries in terms of women elected representatives. It’s just a shocking number,” he said.
According to Gillibrand, a large part of the reason for this number is the fact that women are opting out of the process.
“I think what’s happening is, when you’re looking at corporate America, or you’re looking at running for office, you’re saying “I do not want any part of it,” said Gillibrand, going on to say that the prospect of a 24-7 work schedule and a lack of time for their families turns women away. Furthermore, women know that if they choose to engage in politics they will have to protect not only themselves, but potentially their children, from the personal attacks that often come with being in the public eye.
“We don’t like the playing field on which these games are played; we didn’t set the rules; we don’t like the game. And then the real conundrum is, if that’s the case, and women are self-selecting out because they don’t want to play in that landscape, how do we change the landscape if we’re not in charge?” Gillibrand continued.
For Bennet, who asked the women in the audience to consider running for office multiple times throughout the morning, the answer is simple: women need to run, and they often won’t run if they aren’t asked.
“Women are not asked to run. That is the single biggest reason [they don’t]- it’s hard, but it’s simple,” said Bennet, who went on to say that women typically have to be asked multiple times before they will run for office. Meanwhile, men are far more likely to be self-motivated. “Guys wake up, look in the mirror and say, “Ah, I see a senator!” said Bennet to laughter.
Anna Kaplan, just elected to the North Hempstead Town Board this November, said her own experience was consistent with Bennet’s assertion that women do not run unless asked.
“If you had told me this 40 years ago, that I would be sitting here as an elected official, I would have told you ‘impossible.’ It was never a thought in my mind,” she said.
Originally from Iran, Kaplan came to the United States as a young teen to escape the Islamic Revolution. Unable to speak English when she arrived, and harboring a fear of public speaking, Kaplan didn’t see herself as cut out for public office. However, after being encouraged to run for her local library board, and later at the town level, somehow, she not only rose to the challenge, but won.
“For all of you that think you can’t, remember my story,” said Kaplan.
Another topic the panelists discussed was mentorship; in addition to becoming decision makers to produce better outcomes (something Gillibrand stated she believes happens when women are brought to the negotiating table), women in leadership positions need to mentor and inspire the next generation, possibly leading to a snowball effect.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Tiffany Dufu of The White House project, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that seeks to advance women in business, politics and media. “That’s the reason why we need more women in leadership positions, so other women can see that and be inspired.”
This is the second time this season that the subject of women’s leadership has brought Gillibrand to Long Island; on Oct. 7, she took part in the Long Island Women’s Economic Roundtable at GSE Dynamics in Hauppague, where she spoke on many of the same issues. She’s also worked to support many women candidates across the country including Kaplan, Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker, Rep. Kathy Hochul in Western New York, and Rep. Terri Sewell, who became the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the state of Alabama.
However, the senator noted that working toward gender parity in politics is not the only step she deems necessary toward improving the political climate of this country.
“Obviously, Congress is broken,” the senator told Anton Newspapers. “People have to work on a bi-partisan basis. We have to cross party lines and reach consensus, so that’s the most important thing to do right now.”
How much success Gillibrand will see in that endeavor remains to be seen, but in terms of inspiring women to get involved, she’s already made progress: during the question and answer period, Elizabeth Kase, who just completed a campaign for Nassau County Court Judge, said she was inspired by Gillibrand’s example. While Kase didn’t win the race, she said her run called attention to the fact that only two out of fifteen county court judges were female, and set an example for her children that a political race could be run with moral character.
The panelists used Kase’s example to illustrate that losing a campaign wasn’t a loss for the cause; a run for office increases name recognition, making eventual election more likely, and can change the nature of the political debate. Only not running at all, said the panelists, was a loss for women.
However, the panelists acknowledged that what was important was not seeking public office alone, but seeking to make a difference in their local community; not everyone has the time or inclination to run for office, but everyone can do something.
“We really need to get involved. Whatever it is that you believe- if it’s PTA fine, but let it be PTA,” said Kaplan.
Still, women who are cut out for political leadership often need to be asked, and they may even need some convincing from friends and colleagues. “The simple solution is, if you do nothing else today, ask a woman to run,” said Bennet.
To find out more about Gillibrand’s Off The Sidelines initiative, visit www.offthesidelines.org.