Ksenija Pavlovic sits down for the Conversation with Clare Bresnahan, Executive Director of She Should Run, an initiative encouraging women from all walks of life to run for the public office. Their online program, She Should Run Incubator is free and provides guidance and support for all women considering public service as a leadership path. Join the movement!
I would like to start with the “She Should Run Incubator“. What does the training involve?
An incubator is a place for an everyday woman who is trying to figure out how the heck she can run for office. So it’s more like you’ll find your teachers there or your friends or women that you seek throughout your personal, professional life. So that’s how they’re going to mentor each other and how we connect them to the elected officials and the people that we know at the federal, state, and local levels.
We have monthly “office hours”, a conference call, where women who are in the incubator can come participate. That’s when they get to answer and ask direct questions of these women elected officials who have already gone through the process.
Just to clarify, any woman can apply to learn through this incubator?
Any woman. It’s really designed to best suit the woman that’s just decided to run for office, it is designed to be an approachable place to plan a future run.
Do you personally get to know all the women you train? Do you know their stories?
The history of it is that we watched the incubator in beta form March 2016. And from March to about election day, we had 300 women join. And this was exciting, we were getting to know them. They ranged ages, they were millennial women, baby-boomers, the majority of them were looking at a run maybe 5/10 years down the road. We had women who were thinking of running in 2017, 2018, 2020.
When election day happened, a lot of women realized that in order to reach parity in our lifetime, they’re the ones that have to run for office.
We have a Facebook group with just the women in the incubator where they’ve been sharing their stories. Way to get to know a lot of the women is through the community which we’ve seen from a lot of different organizations is that folks are coming to social media communities to try and share their stories, learn from one another, and connect, and figure out how to make an impact in 2017 and beyond.
Did they say what was the major constraint for them so far to entertain the idea to run?
For a lot of the women we’ve been speaking with over the past months, it was always someone had it as a dream, but it was in the back corner, they didn’t prioritize it, it was always later, later. Or someone had considered it but they didn’t know where to start.
The question of how, how could I possibly do this, was stopping women from running for the public office.
I’d also say that there are a lot of cases where women hold themselves to a higher bar of qualification.
A lot of the research is that women compared to men hold themselves to a much higher standard of what it means to be qualified to run for office.
A lot of the work we do in our e-courses about breaking that down, helping them realize that they’re qualified. Both for how they’ve gotten involved in their community and their personal lives and also what they’re doing with their personal lives no matter where they are in the workforce, whether they’ve been working locally in the community and are working at minimum wage jobs, whether they’re climbing the corporate ladder.
All those experiences are part of what makes you qualified to run for office, so basically part of the incubator is helping them understand that they are prepared, that they are qualified to run, that they can run. Helping them expand those qualifications but that they can start where they are, that they don’t have to become a different person in order to run for office.
They can start where they are, they don’t have to become a different person in order to run for office.
One big part of the political campaign equation depends on the funding. Do you help them with that, or is that something that they need to figure out on their own?
Another great question, it is, it’s a very derivative thing. I think I know just from conversations with women that it’s very daunting and so we have built an e-course that talks about building your network.
And that’s very much in the lens of fundraising, particularly for the women in the incubator who are going to be running for school boards, county missions, or state legislature, where the fundraising is a little bit more manageable than running for office.
They have to be able to know how to start with their network, to be able to get fundraising; whether it’s personal circles or professional circles, you have to be able to get fundraising to launch your campaign.
It also often occurs that, to become a candidate, it’s not the first time that you practice fundraising. It’s very important to get involved with community organizations, non-profit causes, start to practice their fundraising skills before they even become a candidate.
Women in the group, are they prevalently Democrats or Republicans? Do you have any statistics?
We’re still breaking down the data of all the thousands of women who’ve joined, but what we can tell is that it’s women from all fifty states, it’s women from a wide range of the political spectrum, from traditional conservative to progressive, to in the middle, to post-partisan.
A lot of millennial women who are in the program don’t necessarily identify with either political party. Right now it’s just a broad spectrum which is exciting for us as a nonpartisan organization, we’re excited to get all voices listened to.
Can you get an idea of what is going on in their minds with regards to the change they are looking to induce?
It’s been wide ranging. There are some groups of women who are really concerned about jobs and economic pay and economic sustainability for many different types of families; there have been women who have talked about the environment, foreign policy.
It’s hard to nail down one issue, to be honest, it’s more, what’s important to note that so often the dialogue around women in politics says that they tend to think that they’re about one certain issue, but what’s important about these women is that they’re concerned with many different issues, global to local.
If you look at the election campaign of the last year what would you say be the main reasons as to why “She should Run”?
Women have realized that if we’re going to see equal numbers of women and men in our government at all levels of government, that they have to be the ones to run for office.
Often times women want to support the cause of equal representation of women in government but have shied away from running for office.
And they’ve realized, it’s been a wake-up call. Some women even said “it’s been a kick in the but”, to realize if we want to see equal numbers of women and men, in all forms of government, to be the ones who are the decision-makers, to be the ultimate champions of different causes, they have to be the ones to run and serve.
They can’t keep waiting for other leaders, they have to be the leaders that they’ve been waiting for.
What would you say is the image of self-representation that a woman must uphold in public?
At She Should Run, we take the approach of saying there’s not just one standard to run for office.
If you start to go down the path to say “you have to be this certain type of polished candidate”, “you have to look a certain way”, that really excludes lots of different types of women. And too often our political and public officials have been one standard, they have been traditional, men, white.
We’re seeing more and more that there isn’t one standard, that you can come from multiple backgrounds, careers, both for men and women, but particularly for women. They have both the challenge and the unique opportunity to carve out unique paths for running for office, which is different than what it would look like for men traditionally.
Did they voice any opinions as to why Hillary lose the election?
The conversation has not focused so much on Hillary, to be honest, more on what it takes for them to run and a theme that comes up again and again, is the sexism that is the brutally offensive and rude that campaigns have become.
For both men and women, but particularly for women, sexism on the campaign trail, they are worried about it. Part of our e-courses focuses on research that we’ve done to figure out how to effectively and strategically deal with that as a woman and as someone on the campaign.
Do you have any tips for dealing with sexism in politics?
Absolutely, number one is that it’s important to know it and to name it. For all the women and men who will be reading this story, and who follow politics, work in politics, or who are even only following it briefly.
It’s important to know that if it’s focusing on a woman’s appearance – Hillary Clinton knew that this happened to her, but also Carly Fiorina on the Republican side. It happened to her as well. Where fellow candidates were focusing on her appearance.
Or also, a lot of women, who I’ve talked to on the federal and state level, there’s questions of their qualifications.
Whether or not they’re able to run if they have the family, whether or not they’re really able to serve if they don’t have a family. There’s a lot of double binds. So we just talk about, number one is to name it and that knowledge – that it is sexist, and it’s inappropriate. Number two is that it’s important to call it out strategically.
The work that we’ve done with the Women’s Media Centre, it’s called Name it, Change it, has shown that those different types of sexism, whether it’s blatant sexism of questioning her qualifications, or appearance-based coverage does diminish voter opinion of women candidates. We also saw in the research that when women candidates or third-party validators call out that sexism and pin it back to the woman’s strength and what she has to offer, voter opinion goes back up.
It shows that when you call it out, whether you get a supporter to do it with you, or you do it yourself from the campaign, it’s very important that you call it out.
Political communication 101 – don’t let the story of sexism define who you are, it’s important to figure out how to call it out, and pin it back to your strengths and why you’re running for office.
Would a woman be able to survive, in your view, a sex scandal, as a holder of public office?
There are double standards out there for women. Whether it’s everything from what we wear, to our qualifications to run, to how we behave when we are in office. So yes if women can be criticized for what hairstyle they choose, what clothing they choose to wear, whether or not they choose to have a family or not, I’m sure that there would be double standards for any activities and skills that would come up for them once they’re in office.
It shows how much, whether you’re just starting to run for office or if you’re an elected official, you do face double standards, and that’s part of what She Should Run is focused on – creating a culture that values women’s representation in politics and in government and calling out those double standards so that we can get to the point where we’re not dealing with them anymore.
How can women support each other as to moving forward and getting more prominence in politics?
What we’ve seen is that women have been nominating other women to run for office. If you go to sheshouldrun.org, under the tab called ‘our initiative’, you can nominate a woman to run, you could even nominate yourself.
So we’re seeing that sisterhood of women supporting other women. We’ve even seen men supporting other women, and saying hey you’re a really strong leader you should think about this. So it’s just that piece of supporting and nominating and amplifying one another. And then the number two is true, once you get to the point where you’ve asked women, encouraged them to step up their leadership game, to truly being there for them as they’re going through their journey.
That’s what I’ve seen through the incubator, women are supporting one another, they are giving each other advice, not just cheerleading and encouragement, but really thoughtful guidance, and feedback on where they can improve and what they’ve been doing well.
I think actively supporting women throughout the whole journey is important. We need to be training a system. She Should Run is there for women, there are other organizations that we’ve partnered with that are there for women, along with the process of them running, to serving, to then losing and wanting to run again.
We, as a movement, have to be creating an ecosystem that’s supporting women and their journey to run for office.
Do they talk about challenges they face around balancing their personal lives with their run for public office?
Of course! It’s another double standard, a double bind that women are in, where we’re still predominantly caregivers, whether it’s for parents, young family members, even our community, immediate neighborhood or schools, we tend to have the majority of those responsibilities.
Men are more, in younger generations, taking on those responsibilities. In general, women feel the pressures of them more. And particularly for single moms.
So you have single moms?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We have many single moms who are interested in running for office. What they’ve been doing is on our office hour calls, they’ve been asking other elected officials, how they have managed family life and this career path, and they’ve been sharing stories and examples with each other.
A lot of it is a place of being able to acknowledge one another and be able to form the community and say you’re not the only one going through these questions and struggles, and to figure this out. It’s great to hear examples of how women are finding a way from all different backgrounds to make it work.
Can women have it all?
Isn’t that the million-dollar question? It happens at different phases. No individual has it all.
I’ll flip the question and say can men have it all? Very traditionally, particularly before current millennial generations, did men have it all? No. They had mostly a career, were they involved in family life? Not as much. That tends to be a generalization, but can you say they had it all? They weren’t as involved with their family, so why did we assume that they did have it all? They had it easier, I don’t know if they had it all.
They are all generalizations but the phases of having it all come at different times in your life. The best advice that women in elected positions on the office hours have said is that there are just seasons for everything. There are seasons where you’re full-on involved in the community, then there are seasons for your personal life when you have to step back and be full in your personal life, and most of the time it’s somewhere in between.
What were the highest heights and the lowest lows as to the challenges females face in politics?
My highest high and the organization’s highest high is experiencing thousands of women saying yes to the potential of their leadership by pursuing a run for office. This has been a cause of women’s equality that hasn’t gotten as much attention, and I think we’re having a national awakening and women are having individual awakenings to understanding how important it is to have women in government. That is why we all do this work and work really hard at it. So the high is having everyone rallies for this cause.
And the lowest low?
Seeing the type of sexism, not only at the presidential level, it’s down at state and local levels too. We’ve heard examples of a young woman running for state legislature in Illinois, and an outside group sent a postcard of her in a pornographic image.
It wasn’t even her, they photoshopped it. It’s not just women at the national presidential level facing this, so what kind of message are we sending girls and women who are thinking of running for office, if these are the types of experiences we’re seeing? So that was the lowest low, realizing that, seeing this type of sexism, again it’s at all different levels, seeing how that’s deterring women.
But then again look at the rallying that’s happened. A lot of women have said ‘the fight’s worth this’, and we’re not going to let that stop us from owning our power and running for office. Women are saying “I’m not going to let it stop me anymore”.
What is your hope for 2017 when it comes to closing the gender gap with respect to public leadership?
My hope is that we are working with the thousands of new women in the incubator and we’re getting the majority of them to declare that they’re going to run for office in the next 10 years.
Because that’s a huge wave, we’re going to need thousands of women to run if we want to see parity in our lifetime, there’s over 500,000 elected positions in this country. If we can get the majority of these new women in our program to really commit to running for office someday, that’s a huge starting place and a great wave.
How are you going to safeguard against possible discouragement that women may encounter in the future?
At this point we want to be able to offer, we’re fundraising to ensure that we can offer a lifetime access to the incubator so that they can always come back to the community. At least for the Facebook group, so that they’re able to access that group, and like you said, if they face discouragement, they’d be able to come back to a community that will lift them up.
At this point, we’re fundraising to ensure that we can offer a lifetime access to the incubator so that they can always come back to the community. At least for the Facebook group, so that they’re able to access that group, and like you said, if they face discouragement, they’d be able to come back to a community that will lift them up.
All interested women can join the incubator via this link