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While president-elect Donald Trump was accused of disparaging women throughout his presidential campaign, political leaders and researchers in Utah were trying to figure out a way to get more women to run for office.
Only 19.4 percent of the current members of the U.S. Congress are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Among Democratic state legislators, 33 percent are women. Among Republican state legislators, only about 15 percent are women.
Brigham Young University political science professors Chris Karpowitz, Jessica Preece and Quin Monson recently conducted a study to find out how to get more women to run for office. The research was done with the cooperation of the Utah State Republican Party, which has low levels of women’s representation. The results suggest simple interventions from party leaders can lead to an increase in female electoral success.
Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the conflicts found within gender and politics begin early in the political process. As more experienced candidates begin to run for higher level positions in government, Karpowitz said there is a lesser problem for the public to vote for women.
“The bigger problem is happening before the voters even see the ballot,” Preece said. “It is starting with political parties, recruitment and candidate selection procedures. That seems to be where there are challenges related to gender. And then even further back, there are messages in society and cultural expectations that lead women to not even think about running to begin with.”
Karpowitz and Preece said members of political parties respect and identify with party leaders. They said if the leaders encourage women to run and set a norm for valuing women’s voices in the public sphere, more women will run.
“We think these messages by party leaders are really important,” Preece said. “They can spend effort in recruiting and letting women know that their voices really are valued, and they can also send signals out to voters that they care about a norm of gender equality as well.”
This research fell in line with an initiative made by the Republican Party in response to the Growth and Opportunity Report that was released after the 2012 presidential election.
“The RNC must improve its efforts to include female voters and promote women to leadership ranks within the committee,” the report said. “Additionally, when developing our party’s message, women need to be part of this process to represent some of the unique concerns that female voters may have.”
During the course of Trump’s presidential campaign, he was often criticized for his inappropriate language toward and about women. Karpowitz and Preece said they are concerned about the impact this will have on women’s propensities to run for office.
“Leaders are leaders and what they say matters,” Preece said. “How they talk about issues like sexual assault in the workplace or how they talk about their political opponents who are women matters. . . When someone has been explicitly derogatory toward women, it makes you wonder what type of leadership that person is going to show regarding these things.”
Monson, senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said there is dissonance between the Republican Party and their nominee.
“There are people within (Trump’s) administration that believe (they should elect more women), but it is hard to reconcile that report with the way that Donald Trump himself talks about and treats women,” Monson said. “That is the real puzzle and paradox for Republicans.”
David Acheson, former chair of the Utah County Republican Party, said he doesn’t believe Trump will have a negative impact on women running for office.
“Trump’s actions reflect a commitment to getting well-qualified people into positions of power within his administration, and many of those people happen to be women,” Acheson said.
He said he believes Trump’s unpopularity will be a motivator for them to run for office or get involved in politics.
“I see no reason why people won’t be more motivated, rather than less, to run for office because Trump will be the president,” Acheson said.
Preece said the amount of women involved in politics is an indication of how democratic the government process is.
“If you make up half the population, but you’re only making up 20-25 percent of the representatives, it suggests that there is something going on that is not fully democratic,” Preece said. “There might not be anything nefarious going on, but it does suggest it’s worth looking to see if the process is, in fact, fair when you see a huge disparity of a group’s numbers in the population and their representation in a representative body.”
Karpowitz said he believes it is important to have women in government because what they choose to emphasize is different than their male counterparts. The issues and priorities that women value are more likely to be considered when more women are in government than when they aren’t.
“Power is not only about taking issues that are on the agenda and making them laws, but it’s also about which issues get considered in the first place,” Karpowitz said. “Party is a huge influence on these things, but gender also makes a difference on the prioritization of certain issues. That is not something that we should put aside lightly. In fact, when women’s voices aren’t heard, the group is likely to be worse off.”