The Blame Game: Are Women Responsible for their Lack of Representation?


I spend a significant amount of time working across the globe to encourage women to run for public office. When they make this brave choice, I also help them run winning campaigns. The work does not stop there. Getting more women into office requires influencing political systems, as well as attitudes toward women leaders, that either make it more or less difficult to get women elected. I was quite excited when I came across the Washington Post article “Everything you think you know about women and politics is wrong” as part of their really cool feature, She the People. Okay Washington Post, you got my attention!

The opening premise is right, we don’t know near enough about women candidates’ motivations, their experiences on the campaign trail or the challenges they face while in office. U.S. Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s new book “Off the Sidelines,” gives us a rare glimpse of what it means to join the boy’s club in the Senate, and let’s just say, it is not pretty.

On the academic side, there are also not near enough studies about the reasons why women chose to run, or not. Why is that? Partly because the sample (the number of women running) is just so incredibly low. Yet, we know that when women run in higher numbers, women win in higher numbers. When women are a larger share of the pool of candidates, they will be a larger share of elected officials. Elections across the world have proven this. In the meantime, we have a lot to try to learn from a small pool of participants in the process.

You know the statistics; the global average of women serving in legislative bodies equals 20 percent. So that means 51 percent of women worldwide are represented by 80 percent of men. This is truly one of the worst forms of global inequality. The consequence is that we are less informed and less able to tackle tough issues, like how young girls get access to education, global trafficking of women, poverty, violence toward women, and a hundred other leading issues that define the quality of life for women and families worldwide.

The situation can be described as such: when women are blocked from the corridors of power they are on an unequal playing field and therefore not in a position to truly shift these sobering statistics.

Therefore, when I come across more research that sheds light on women candidates, I am elated. My hopes were quickly dashed with a recent analysis on this topic. A new study by Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, misses the boat, “It’s the Family, Stupid? Not Quite..How Traditional Gender Roles Do Not Affect Women’s Political Ambition.” 

Read the research and you be the judge. To someone like me who is in the field trying to create a more enabling environment conducive to getting more women elected, a study arguing that because women are successful in the corporate world, family caregiving is not a factor in women’s choice to enter politics. This is an oversimplification and not inline with reality. There is more to the study than this, yet the ultimate conclusion is that women are to blame because they lack the ambition to step up to the plate.

As someone who spends her days listening to women talk about the dual burden of work and family, hearing women candidates struggle with the lack of support from their party or their partner, this conclusion rings hallow. It is an interesting set of data, but one that contributes to the “blame the victim” approach that will get us no further in decreasing the gender gap in representation.

Women right now are being told to lean in, lean back, quit apologizing, call out “mansplaining” and ban bossy. These are just a few examples of push back on a culture that defines and thus limits the perception of women´s potential vis-à-vis their treatment in a male dominated society. The message is, ladies, it is your problem to solve, and yours alone, if you only you would do more to challenge cultural misogyny. In part, I agree, women have to push back. But, the idea that an ambition gap in running for office is the major obstacle without considering the larger structural and attitudinal barriers specific to gender roles, economics and political participation is naive at best.

Just the other day I was talking with a colleague whose friend in Sweden was running for office. She stepped out of the race, deciding to take a less visible role in the party rather than be a candidate. Principally this decision was based on fear. She was increasingly fearing for herself and her family due to the attention she was garnering and the implications to her family and her safety. So here is an extremely progressive country when it comes to women’s rights with the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the western world, yet where high profile women are being threatened with rape and violence via twitter bullying. If the women of Sweden aren’t empowered and supported, we have a larger issue than ambition to overcome in order to support women candidates in other places.

The bottom line, we don’t need an academic study that blames women for their lack of ambition. Instead, we need political parties that are willing to take into consideration the realities of women candidates. We need financial structures that give women access to resources (thank you Emily´s List for the model!). We need a media environment that focuses less on what women candidates are wearing and more on what they are saying. And yes, we need to continue to question the rigid gender roles around caregiving and family obligations that require women who do run and win to be Superwomen, or have the funds to hire a good nanny.


Do you have the ambition to run for office? Then turn your attention to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation´s new guide on “Keys to elected office, the essential guide for women” or a newly launched campaign VoteRunLead, based on making it as simple as possible to reach across the aisle and encourage women to get involved with tools that can help them succeed.

My advice is that the Women and Politics Institute at American University spend even more time observing women candidates and talking to political institutions that work with women running for office rather than contributing to the non conventional frame, which turns out is really quite conventional, that blames women.

The Personal is Still Political

Coming to a personal realization of how

Growing up as a social movement organizer the concept that the personal is political has been knocking about in back of my mind throughout my career, coined by a feminist organizer in a famous 1969 essay with the same title. This simple phrase refers to the theory that women´s personal problems are political problems, which basically means that the life experiences of women are not just about their personal choices, but are the result of systematic oppression. Therefore, when we recognize oppression exists and identify the roots of inequality, we are closer to resolving it. After all, a well defined problem is half the solution.

This was a rallying cry during the second wave of feminism in the United States and among student organizing movements that advocated for change within the individual, by changing their mindset to speak up and out and make their personal experiences part of the political narrative.

This is still true today.

The Status of Women and Girls

There are a thousand reasons why we should be deeply concerned about the status of women and girls given the grim reality of women`s
experiences around the world. Just to tick off a few relevant stats:

  • As illustrated in an innovative ad campaign for the Girl Effect, when a girl turns twelve and is in poverty, in the eyes of many she is a woman now. She faces the reality of being married by age 14. Pregnant by the time she’s 15 and if she survives childbirth she might have to sell her body to support her family which puts her at risk for contracting and spreading HIV.
  • Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan are the world’s most dangerous countries for women according to a 2011 study by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation due to a barrage of threats ranging from violence and rape to dismal healthcare and “honor killings.”
  • More than one million babies die on the first day of life – making the birth day the most dangerous day for babies in nearly every country, rich and poor alike (an additional three million die in the first month).
  • Approximately 120 million children either never make it to school or drop out before their fourth year, 55% of those are girls.
  • Worldwide, more than 51 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are taken as child brides (52% of girls are married by age 18 in Yemen), which means 14.2 million girls annually, or 39,000 daily, will marry too young.
  • Women are only 8.1% of Fortune 500 company´s top earners, which is only a two percent increase above what it was five years ago and they hold only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.
  • Worldwide, women are paid 18% on average less than their male counterparts at work.
  • And although women comprise half the population of the world, currently men make up 78.1% of seats in national parliaments worldwide.

When women in the United States talk about a “war on women,” they may be thinking only in the US context, but the war in reality is global. It is easy to look at these statistics and become depressed and therefore demobilized, which is why we need to constantly search for the points of light, and believe me, there are many.

When we look at the status of women through the framework of the personal is political, the prism of change becomes more apparent. This perspective is a constant theme in my life and reveals itself in even more meaningful ways working and living abroad. Rather than focusing on the oppression of women, we need to open our eyes to see the opportunities and personal stories of change.

All I want is an education, and I am (1)

Political Change and the Family Unit

Let me introduce you to Fatma. She recently graduated from university in Diyarbakir, in Southeast Turkey where she grew up. She comes from a large Kurdish family (there is no such thing as a small Kurdish family!). She is one of eight children, second to the youngest. Fatma will be a Turkish teacher after she passes the final teaching certificate test this summer. She wants to remain in Southeast Turkey. She is bright, quick witted, thoughtful, beautiful and deeply devoted to her family and her faith.


She is pictured here with her friend and roommate, also a fresh college graduate.

Fatma only recently decided to wear a hijab. As a Muslim woman of  faith this was important to her. This was a personal decision, and hers to make — as she was quick to point out to me when I first met her several years prior in her non-headscarf state.

Fatma´s brother had to quit school at age 12 to support the family, later moving by himself to Istanbul at age 16, working his way through the restaurant industry as a runner, waiter, chef, manager and now owner growing up along with the city that has changed as much as he has over the last 15 years. He put her through university and takes great pride in all of her accomplishments. Fatma´s brother is my husband.

I talk endlessly about women´s rights and through my work I am constantly looking for the models and mechanisms to increase women´s participation and strengthen their voice in policy and politics. This is quite technical stuff and one can get lost in evaluations of progress, and industry jargon of “best practices” and “lessons learned” and yet another conference call, strategy session, technical support proposal, and so on and so forth.

But the personal is political. So, to see my husband and his brothers from a very traditional family put their sister through college and hope and wish the best for her feels like real change. We may not be able to measure it as accurately, but it is a powerful indicator of the shifting family dynamics that give women more opportunity, through education, and by individual choice whether to marry early, whether to wear a headscarf or not. The opportunity of choices, big or small, influences how women see themselves, and importantly, within their cultural reality, express their own desires.

Lessons from Afghanistan 

Last year I spent time in Afghanistan training political party leaders and activists on voter engagement and outreach. I was aided by a very capable Afghani staff who understood the political dynamics and challenges of working with this particular audience. I got to know one organizer in particular, a 20-year-old who could spin circles around most organizers in the US, male or female. She was smart, energized, passionate, and working as the main household bread winner in her family. The question is whether she will be pressured to marry early or can continue her career. But the personal is political, and as much as I discussed the framework for equality with these nearly all male party activists, I recognized that their own family dynamics have more to do with whether change happens in Afghanistan than any law or new election. Their experience and mindset about gender was being shaped in that classroom, just by the very presence of this steadfast and dedicated young woman who was helping normalize the idea of what women are capable of when given the opportunity to shine.

In the development context we need to put more emphasis on watching and supporting evolving family dynamics, and encourage these changes just as fervently as we support adherence to international standards for equality. We also need to do the proper public opinion research to tap into the personal aspects of gender formation, particularly among men, as fathers, brothers, and sons. Men who don´t consider themselves feminists are the potential change agents within all families, whether they are Muslim, Christian, from the West of the far reaches of Central Asia.

I suspect that the personal is political will be a theme that continues to show up in much of my work and experiences abroad. I will strive hard to recognize, respect and accept that families can come to their own terms of what gender equality means in their lives, and their children´s lives, and that gently encouraging and standing witness to these changes moves women and girls farther down the pathway toward real progress than any of the bleak statistics on the status of women might indicate.

Women´s Rights? Laws vs. Reality

A colleague of mine who knows I am passionate in my fight for women´s rights and that I love to geek out on data, recently sent me a cool new chart outlining women´s rights across the globe, using World Bank and UN datasets. Perfect, a merging of my two worlds!

As a data geek I was impressed and quickly began clicking away, sorting by country, subject matter, region, and so forth. Check out this beautifully designed dataset. But the more I clicked through it, the realization, yet again, set in. No matter the country, when it comes to women´s rights, there is the official law and then there is the reality.


Don´t get me wrong, it is important to have the laws. Yes, we need to have the laws! And ideally those laws get there by grassroots support and local coalitions that include not just “experts” but engaged citizens who are influencing the political will. Laws that get enacted through a check the box process because random country a. thinks random country b. will give them more money and support if they look to be in compliance with things the “West” cares about, do very little good, and in fact may do harm in the long run.

Let us not forget that laws must be made meaningful because they are implemented in such a way to change behavior, this is the whole point. We want to change the behavior of courts, implementing agencies, law enforcement, Parliaments, Presidents, fathers, daughters and on and on and on.

The rigidness of global development projects with their formal indicators, matrixes, or convoluted ways of measuring impact, sometimes move us away from this very basic question. Are we changing attitudes and behavior? Are these laws helping us create a more enabling environment for making women´s rights meaningful?

As a friend in Albania pointed out after looking at the data, ¨In the case of Albania, the legal framework regulating domestic violence seem just fine, while only last Friday, we faced a gruesome killing of a 21 year old girl by her father and two brothers in one of the villages in the northern part of Albania. The autopsy revealed that the girl was five months pregnant and was shot with eight bullets in her chest.”

Sadly, violence against women is commonplace, no matter how great the laws are, but do these laws that we work so hard to get in place really curb behavior, raise public awareness, or create public outrage? What is their impact? A legal framework, whether dealing with violence, workplace equality, reproductive rights, is important, but our job is only halfway done if the status of women in reality does not change.

As international development advocates, sitting at another conference, putting together yet another report, organizing event after event, are we really moving the ball forward? This chart would lead us to say yes. In reality, the results are more mixed.

So let us continue to work on that legal framework and innovative policy solutions, but not forget that engaging people, changing the hearts and minds of individual people is the kind of change we should be focused on, not just creating pretty datasets.

Finally, US moves on Equal Pay!

1561_A4_Email_Poster.inddWorking on women´s participation globally means I am often put in the difficult position of defending the status of women in the US. While I am proud to defend Americans, where we have made progress, I am also the first to harp on the gaping holes. The fact that the US for the most part has a base of anti-discrmination laws in place, where women and men can openly call themselves feminists (a “bad” word in all countries I work in), in addition to the growing political reality that women can make or break elections (hence the 12 point gender gap between Obama and Romney in the Presidential campaign), means there is more movement than the 18.3% representation of women in The Congress indicates. However, much, much more needs to be done to elect more women as well as ensure equality through policy. And at at time when Republicans are talking about women as if it is the 1960s, it is refreshing to see Obama moving forward on the Equal Pay Act, finally!!

This is important. And today, April 8th, is the day we recognize as Equal Pay Day, the symbolic date when women’s wages catch up to men’s from the previous year. The sad reality is that even college educated women in the US still make 7% less than their male counterparts on average, all things being equal. If you want to know more about how those numbers are crunched, read the American Association of University Women recent report on the wage gap.

A significant walk away point for me, working in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Kosovo, Albania and even Saudi Arabia, is that nothing happens that is sustainable, without the proper amount of political will coming from, you guessed it, women. Sure, laws can be instituted to deal with gender discrminiation, especially with the carrot of EU association agreements in certain countries, but those laws are meaningless unless women truly accept that it is their job to make sure those laws are implemented. It is their job to demand a discussion about why women are discriminated against. It is their job to ask why media treats women as entertainment rather than sources of information, why politicians (male and female) scoff at temporary mechanisms like quotas in election law to normalize the role of women, why girls growing up in countries where they have equal access to education are at significant risk of being victims of domestic violence or sex trafficking.

If women don´t demand change (of course in a way that is cultural relevant for their country) nothing changes. It is very simple. This is the universal lesson I take from doing this work in the US and abroad: the demand for changing the status quo creates the energy and political will where policies and laws can follow, but not necessarily in the reverse order. First and foremost, women have to want a change to take place, be willing to speak up and demand it, and be smart about how they build a movement that has real political capital behind it. There is no shortage of policy models and example laws to reduce gender discrimination, but these are not worth the paper they are written on unless women are at the forefront building support and making them meaningful in action.

In that light, I love the strategies AAUW is utilizing, to push Congress to act, broaden the demand through social media networks, mobilize women to congratulate Obama in order to spur and embolden more action, as well as feature the real stories of women impacted by pay discrimination so that we understand the issue from a personal narrative. All of these components are the fundamental tools of grassroots activism that can pave the way toward progress, and turns out, can be replicated all across the world.

So, I am watching you American women….and the male and female politicians who women vote for…let´s not forget about the midterm election this November! I stand ready to defend and willing to criticize. Let´s show we can be a model, not another example of a failed effort to do right by women in a country where arguably the barriers are less difficult to overcome.

A picture says a 1000 word

I was thrilled to learn that Sheryl Sanberg is teaming up with Getty Images to improve the stock photography of women,which is horribly limiting and stereotpyical. Getty is the largest supplier of photography in the world, and if women are pictured mostly as caregivers and sexy women in suits, what does this say about the way society views their role and contributions? The new library of photos shows professional women as surgeons, painters, bakers, soldiers and hunters.

Just yesterday I was finishing a focus group script in a developing country to test voter attitudes toward women candidates for a campaign on increasing women´s participation in politics. When it came to finding images to test of local women, the options were extremely limiting and based on stereotypes, and mostly based on women as sex objects.

When we change the images of women, we shape the expectations. Sometimes in life, you have to see it to believe it.

Public attention doesn’t make you qualified to run for office

Catherine Geanuracos of RH Reality Check wrote a really great piece about how women in the spotlight, putting their foot forward for political office, need to be sure they do their homework and determine whether they have the right stuff to win. It is one thing to be a darling of emerging movements where women are stepping up and making an impact. But it is often a different set of experiences that make one qualified to run for office. Don’t get me wrong, whether it is women in the US fighting the war on women, or women abroad making leaps and bounds in bringing attention to the cause of justice and equality, these are remarkable women who deserve our shout out. But it is another thing to believe that public notoriety, whether online or in the news media, is a key ingredient for running a successful bid for office. Campaigns come down to basic things..what are you doing for the voter in the district you are representing? Do they care about your profile? Have you done due diligence to show you have a vested interest in THEIR issues, not yours? When I saw a note about Pussy Riot members contemplating a run for Moscow assembly, I was reminded of this recent analysis, as they should also be. It is important that more women step up, but regardless of gender, it is more important that they win when they run and not confuse movement popularity with the support necessary from actual voters.

Why is the way a female politician dresses news?

Women in elected office, worldwide, are always judged more harshly for their appearance. This kind of news has no place in a democracy. See how the mayor of Dayton, Ohio responded to news coverage about her looks. We used to believe that ignoring this type of criticism, taking the higher road, was the way to go. New research shows that when women call out sexist coverage they gain respect and change the impact of appearance-based commentary.

Talking points for fighting sexist coverage:

  • What I wear is not news.
  • Internet musings related to my appearance is not news and random irrelevant remarks posted on a Facebook page should not be the focus of mainstream news reporting.
  • What is and should be news is our focus on… (insert agenda here, pivot back to the message YOU want to convey). I am focused on the serious work of…(go back to YOUR MESSAGE).
  • Sexist attacks about makeup and wardrobes — attacks on what I am wearing rather than what I am thinking — have no place in the media.

Women & Politics in India

When party leaders around the world realize that including women in more meaningful ways into politics is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, we will see real progress. Batting for early passage of women’s reservation bill, Rahul Gandhi vowed to work for larger representation to them in Parliament, government and Congress and noted that the party and the country cannot ignore the views of half of the population.