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OREM — Utah was recently ranked as number 49 of 50 for women in politics and research by a Utah Valley University professor offers some explanations for the dismal numbers.
Nationally, women hold 18.5 percent of seats in Congress and 20 percent of those in the U.S. Senate. Utah has not elected a woman to congress since 1995 and no women currently serve in statewide executive offices. Though 17 percent of current Utah senators and 16 percent of the House of Representatives are female, the total number of women serving in Utah’s State legislature has actually decreased since 2001, Utah Women and Leadership wrote in its January research and policy brief.
Not all the numbers put Utah behind. Utah is one of six states with a woman serving as speakers of the states’ House of Representatives. Utah elected the nation’s first female state senator in 1896 and three women have occupied Utah’s congressional seats throughout the state’s history. Utah was also the second state to grant women suffrage.
“We were very early in allowing women the right to vote. And that’s inspiring. That says a lot about our culture and who we are as people. We’ve had great women leaders through our history,” said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.
Women in Utah are not disinterested politically. Utah Colleges Exit Poll data showed that in the 2008 election, 51.7 percent of voters were female and in 2004, women accounted for 52 percent of voters. In 1996, Utah had the highest turnout of women voters across the nation, making up 76 percent of voters at Utah’s polls.
“It means that the women are engaged and interested. So it’s just helping them bridge that gap and knock down some of those barriers that exist (for running for office),” said Lindsay Zizumbo, National Program Manager at the Hinckley Institute and founding member of Real Women Run — a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase the number of women in politics in Utah.
Getting women involved politically is crucial, Zizumbo said, because they offer a unique perspective from male politicians.
“Women are severely underrepresented in public office. When any swath of our population is underrepresented, we have to turn to that and see what the issue is and see if it can be fixed,” Zizumbo said. “When you’re missing large swaths of the population, you’re missing really important ideas and thoughts being brought to the table that are currently not there.”
Both Utah Women and Leadership and Zizumbo found that women are just as likely to be elected as men once they run, but the process of taking the step toward campaigning is riddled with complexities for women.
Susan Madsen, UVU professor and author of the research and policy brief, says women in Utah face several distinct challenges in running for office: societal attitude about women in office, a woman’s motivations for running and a lack of encouragement to run for political office.
Madsen said attitudes can hinder women from self-identifying with politics or expressing an ambition to seek elected office. As a solution, she suggests teaching girls from childhood to become involved in their communities and that “it is a civic responsibility to serve in the community in various ways, including running for public office,” she wrote in the brief.
We were very early in allowing women the right to vote. And that's inspiring. That says a lot about our culture and who we are as people. We've had great women leaders through our history,
She also points out that women are more likely than men to run for office to help the community and the perceived ability of a political role’s effectiveness in making a difference can deter them from running. Madsen suggests that by offering quality networking opportunities, mentorships and developmental opportunities, they may “see themselves as being able to positively influencing people and policy.”
A third deterrent to women’s political aspirations can be the lack of encouragement to run for political office from those involved politically. Madsen urges for the encouragement of women to run for office and for those in leadership positions to recruit more women to run.
Zizumbo said Real Women Run is helping to accomplish that goal with networking opportunities, workshops and trainings for Utah women interested in politics, whether as volunteers or running for office. She supports Madsen’s report with her own research and experience.
“When we have a panel of former elected officials, the constant theme throughout is, ‘Well, I was asked to run for office. Somebody came to me and said that I should run for office.’ Not every, but most, of the women we run into who have decided to take that leap were at some point in time recruited or asked to run for office,” Zizumbo said.
In addition to Madsen’s findings, Zizumbo offers another explanation for Utah’s largest politically underrepresented group: a lack of knowledge about the process of getting elected.
“What you hear often when we’re holding training when we asked women why they haven’t sought or haven’t run for office yet, is that they either don’t know the pathway, it’s intimidating, they don’t know how, they are less likely than men to be able to endure a political campaign, they’re also less likely to maybe reconcile their family and work obligations in order to run for office as a man would be be,” she said. “And there’s this constant theme among women who simply think they’re less qualified. All those stand as barriers to women getting involved or choosing to run for office.”
Lockhart said her network from her local political experiences, as well as a personal support network to help care for her family of three young children, were critical to her success.
Zizumbo said that as women in the organization see others volunteer, run or get elected — at least seven women who attended Real Women Run trainings ran in the 2013 municipal elections — they are encouraged that they could do the same.
“When they know they have a support group, when someone has talked to them or they’ve seen it happen and they say, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ It certainly opens their eyes to that possibility,” she said.
Lockhart added her cautious support of women entering the political sphere.
“Women have lots of choices to make. We all make choices and they’re all valid choices. I don’t think there should be a quota by any means of how many women,” Lockhart said. “But I do know when women run we make great candidates and people are very willing to support us and vote for us.”