Utahns can increase equity and equality within the state by utilizing data to recognize the impact of gender and race in our everyday lives. The state can use these data to better utilize the talents, ideas, and resources that Latina women have to offer t...
Perceptions of Women Elected Officials in Utah: Challenges, Benefits, and Lessons Learned
Setting the Stage
For many years, Utah has been at the bottom of the rankings for women running for and serving in elected office. Although significant strides have been made in increasing the number of women serving in these roles in recent years, there is still work to be done. For example, Utah is currently ranked 32nd in the country for female representation in state and federal office, Utah has never elected a female governor or a US Senator, and only two women have served in statewide executive offices. In addition, research in recent years has documented lower percentages of women in county and municipal elected positions compared to nationwide averages. Yet, American democracy is grounded in the idea of representation, and research has found that residents and communities benefit when more equal numbers of men and women work together in decision making and problem solving.
Growing a state’s “political pipeline” or “opportunity pool” is an important factor in improving elected female representation. This pipeline is a bench of individuals a party pulls from, either organically or formally, to run for office. Research shows that when women serve in a statewide elected office, women in those states have higher levels of political activity, knowledge, interest, and efficacy. Young women also show a greater interest in politics when there are women serving in high-profile government offices. Generally speaking, when women see other females serving in office (particularly those of their same party affiliation), they are more likely to engage in the political process and feel connected to the political system. Research confirms that female political role models can influence the choices made by other women to enter politics, which can amplify the political voices of women.
To prepare Utah women to run for office most effectively, there needs to be a deeper understanding of women’s experiences in both running for and serving in political offices. Until now, such an in-depth qualitative research study has not been conducted. The findings in this brief can be a resource for women in terms of what to expect, and it can also help individuals, groups, and entities improve the ways they encourage and support women as candidates and elected officials.
The Decision to Run
When Utah women were asked what motivated them to run for public office, the top three reasons listed by participants were as follows: they were asked and/or encouraged to run, they had a desire to make a difference and contribute to their community, and they were dissatisfied with the status quo.
Next, the 118 former or current elected officials shared perspectives on the benefits they experienced while running for and serving in office. The top three benefits included building relationships and networking; increasing knowledge through continual learning and gaining a greater understanding of the process; and having the ability to influence policy change while giving back to the community.
Challenges & Barriers
The top four challenges the elected women shared were experiencing gender bias; being subject to public criticism, rumors, and personal attacks; meeting the time commitment; and facing the challenges associated with running for office.
Lessons & Development
Study participants shared a range of lessons they had learned and skills they had developed or improved since taking office. The top four themes were leadership skills; increased resilience; an appreciation and understanding of the importance of relationship building, collaboration, and compromise; and self-confidence.
In addition to the experiences, lessons learned, and personal development these women shared, many offered advice to women running for and serving in public office. The following lists include a condensed summary of the top pieces of advice shared by Utah’s elected women who responded to the study. This includes 10 representative quotations from participants about “What to Do” and 10 quotations related to “What Not to Do.”
What to Do:
- Be transparent and honest.
- Be yourself, do your best, and have no regrets.
- Stay true to your values and trust your gut.
- Talk straight, keep it brief, and stand your ground.
- Be prepared with the facts; read, research, and ask questions.
- Be tough and develop a thick skin—there will always be those who will criticize your efforts.
- Remain professional even if others do not; the system (political parties) may not support you but do it anyway.
- Take some time off if you are struggling, even just a walk or an escape to a movie.
- Be brave and bold, flexible but consistent, kind and humble, and gracious and grateful.
- Remember that while making yourself subject to public scrutiny is challenging, the example you set for others is powerful.
What Not to Do:
- Do not short-sell yourself.
- Do not feel dumb asking questions.
- Do not be afraid to speak up and share your perspective.
- Do not doubt your reason for serving or your ability to do so.
- Do not ask permission or be afraid to challenge “authority.”
- Do not apologize for your passion; if something is important to you, then speak up.
- Do not take things personal.
- Do not engage in social media arguments; share your perspective without being argumentative.
- Do not rush into decisions; weigh all sides of an issue.
- Do not be afraid to look someone in the eye and ask them for a donation for your campaign; they are investing in the cause, the platform, and the principles you represent.
Need & Recommendations
In addition to the questions asked in our survey, participants were invited to share any additional thoughts. Twenty-two (19%) used the opportunity to underscore the importance of women serving in elected office. One participant shared, “We need good women to serve. . . . The best policy is made when both men and women have a seat at the table. Our communities need us, and I had no idea how much my life needed this experience.” Another elected official said, “More women need to get involved in the government and leadership roles. We have so much to bring to the table. Different viewpoints and problem-solving strategies are crucial to the process.” Speaking to women who feel like they stick out in a male-dominated entity, one legislator said, “Being different doesn’t mean you don’t belong, it means your voice is needed more than ever.”
Clearly, many challenges, benefits, and learning opportunities accompany running for and serving in elected office. As Utah works toward increasing female representation in elected offices, we offer the following recommendations:
- Ask and Encourage Women to Run: Participants in our study and national data both show that women are more likely to run for office when they are asked and encouraged to run. With that in mind, we encourage party leaders, community leaders, and residents to actively seek out and encourage qualified women to run for office.
- Be a Mentor or Sponsor: Formal and informal mentors and sponsors are valuable for women when considering whether to run and serve. Former and current elected officials—both female and male—can make a difference by reaching out and mentoring women who are engaged in their communities and who decide to run for office.
- Support Women Candidates: Supporting women candidates can help move the needle for women in politics within Utah. As one researcher stated, “If women are to achieve parity in elective office, most of the gains will have to come from the GOP.” To that end, we encourage all political parties to do more in terms of actively recruiting and training female candidates to run for office. We also encourage parties to work closely with existing nonpartisan organizations that are already successfully providing these programs: Real Women Run and the Women’s Leadership Institute. In addition, providing financial support to female candidates is significant in helping them overcome some of the barriers of running.
- Support Leadership Development of Young Women and Girls: We must continue to encourage parents, teachers, coaches, leaders, and mentors to help girls and young women develop leadership skills and resilience by sharing examples of women who are serving in their communities and by providing leadership opportunities more generally for girls and young women.
As Lt. Governor Kerry Healey of Massachusetts stated, “The mounting issues facing our country are complex. If we’re going to solve these problems, we can no longer afford to leave the talent of half of our nation out of the conversation.” As is shown by the lived experiences of the women in this study, more can be done to support women in their runs for elected office and in their service as elected community leaders at all levels of Utah government.
There are many things to consider when making the decision to run for an elected office. When female candidates enter politics with a clear understanding of the challenges, lessons learned, and advice, they are better prepared with strategies and the necessary support to address issues and concerns they might encounter. We believe that understanding the benefits of running and serving will outweigh the risks and challenges that may emerge. Utahns need more women to run and serve in elected posts at all levels of government, and the research is clear that as we do so, we can lift all Utah residents and the state as a whole.
To learn more about perceptions of women elected officials in Utah read the full brief.