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Despite Election Day Wins, Women Still Need a Running Start

New study shows voters have higher expectations for female candidates

This year has been the year of the woman, if only because of the number of times we’ve seen that phrase emblazoned in headlines.

First, women’s lives and health care were used as political chips. Then, women were relegated to a monolithic voting bloc. With last week’s history-making election, women now carry the banner for making gains in Congress — a milestone 20 women will represent their states in the Senate in January. We make up more than 50 percent of the population and less than 20 percent of Congress, but this is a victory nonetheless.

Despite big wins, women still have to clear higher hurdles than men, according to voters. If we had a nickel for every time we heard someone say they’d vote for a woman, as long as she’s “qualified,” we wouldn’t be so worried about this fiscal cliff.

A new study from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation with Lake Research Partners released this week shows that women must get a running start. These findings reveal that what it takes for a woman to be “qualified” in the eyes of voters is different, more nuanced and more complex than for a man. That is why it is so important that female candidates’ training programs and their consultants reflect the unique challenges of running in heels.

Past Barbara Lee Family Foundation research showed that having women on campaign teams brings a perspective that men-only teams do not. It’s true for running, and it’s true for governing: Women just do it differently.

What does it take for a female candidate to show she possesses substance and style? She must start early, according to these new findings, which provide a clear road map for candidates to tackle this double bind.

For female candidates, words matter when introducing themselves to voters. Saying they are qualified helps female candidates appear that way to voters. And confidence is critical. Women must come across as confident, qualified and competent straight out of the gate. They do not have the luxury of ramping up their campaigns the way men do. As one focus group participant said of a female candidate, “She is already fighting an uphill battle. She has got to get everything going for her that she can.”

That is why training programs that teach young women the nuts and bolts of running for office and introduce them to female role models are powerful.

With media training, fundraising skills, public speaking, and networking sessions under their belts, these young professional women (and high school girls) are ready to confidently hit the ground running as soon as they introduce themselves to voters.

This research shows that the first pitch is critical. To relay their qualifications, women must focus on the presentation and content of their introduction. Leading with their issue expertise and accomplishments, experience and track record before sharing their personal story.

Voters also give women points for having well-organized campaigns from the outset. There’s no room for on-the-job training, so learning campaign skills early is vital. Voters also see multitasking as an inherently female trait. Want to have a well-organized, efficient campaign team on day one? Hire some women.

Early training programs work. Friday’s Running Start Path to Politics panel of female experts — reporters, public affairs professionals and strategists — is one example of giving women a leg up. With the right tools, and with the right team, women can fill the floor of Congress. First we must get women to help fill the pipeline.

Adrienne Kimmell is executive director of the Barbara Lee Foundation. Jessica N. Grounds executive director of Running Start.

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