Encouraging women to run for local elected office

New UW-Extension study looks at barriers identified by potential women candidates

Contact: Jenny Erickson, JErickson@co.sauk.wi.us, 608-355-3250; Victoria Solomon, victoria.solomon@wisc.edu, 608-328-9440; Dan Hill, dan.hill@uwex.edu, 608-265-2852

In Wisconsin, as in the rest of the U.S., studies have shown that women are less likely to run for elected office. And women’s reasons for staying out of the political arena often differ from those given by men, according to a new study by three University of Wisconsin-Extension educators.

“We know that when women do decide to run they are elected at the same rate as men. So, why don’t more women run? Once we have a better understanding of the barriers, we can develop programs that will encourage more women to seek local elected office,” said Jenny Erickson, community resource development educator with the UW-Extension Sauk County and one of the study’s authors.

A recent report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign documented that, across the country, more than 70 percent of the names appearing on state and federal ballots belong to men.

Last summer, the educators conducted a survey of county board supervisors and people identified by UW-Extension colleagues and community leaders as potential candidates for local elected office. Overall, those identified were familiar with public policy issues and had established community relationships. They had also attended local government meetings and gained experience running organizations, businesses or foundations.

The study’s authors developed two separate surveys asking current officials and potential candidates to identify barriers to running for office.

More than 1,600 surveys went out, with nearly 600 responses returned from 38 counties, both urban and rural. Men’s and women’s responses were compared to determine whether specific barriers to running for office existed for women.

The results showed a significant difference between men’s and women’s perceptions of how qualified they were to serve in local elected office, with 71 percent of men and only 60 percent of women saying they were well-qualified.

Nearly 19 percent of women said “making decisions in public” acted as a barrier, while less than five percent of men felt this way. Twenty-four percent of women also saw running against an incumbent as a barrier, compared to less than six percent of men.

Finally, nearly 31 percent of women said they had “concerns about reprisals or criticism,” while less than 18 percent of men were worried about getting negative feedback.

“This lack of confidence can discourage women from running for office,” said study co-author Victoria Solomon, a community resource development educator with UW-Extension Green County. “Our research pinpointed these hesitations, which will help in developing strategies to build confidence and familiarize women with local government.”

Dan Hill, UW-Extension local government specialist added: “I think what we learned can help local leaders refine their efforts when looking to recruit candidates for local offices. It should help them identify additional diverse voices to their local boards and councils.”

An article about the study and its findings appears in the February issue of The Municipality, the magazine of the Wisconsin League of Wisconsin Municipalities at http://www.lwm-info.org/

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