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US Presidential Election Snapshot

US campaigns – love em, or hate em? More importantly, learn from them! donkey-and-el

Campaign strategies and tactics in the United States are the most advanced in the world. But let’s be real, there’s plenty to dislike about American politics—the massive amounts of money, the never-ending campaign, negative campaigning. Yet, no one would question the sophistication of American political advertising, campaign organization, voter motivation, or data management. Will this sophistication result in electing an extreme, populist, narcissistic, misogynistic President, or someone who is arguably one of the most qualified candidates to run in modern history, who also happens to also be a woman?

We will have that answer in about seven weeks!

Global implications

This election could not be more important for the future direction of the US, not to mention the significant global implications and uncertainty to arise from a Trump presidency. It goes without saying this election is important to me personally with the strong potential of electing the first woman to office, something I dedicate much of my life’s passion toward achieving.

What’s really going on with the election?

Between working with Syrian women on leadership development, frequent trips to Georgia this fall to work with women candidates, and helping develop sophistication with insurgent western European political parties, I have partnered with the oh so charming and politically astute Jim Arkedis to help European parties see the US campaigns at work this fall through high-quality election delegation study trips in October and November. Get ready to follow me across Ohio and Virginia to see canvassing and GOTV up close.

I will write more soon about the gender gap, sexism in this election, and tactics of the political organizations and advocacy organizations that are fighting back, as well as what Hillary and the DNC are doing to make being a woman an advantage, not a negative in this election. So hold on, I have a whole lot of things to say on this massive topic, but first, let’s start with the big picture snapshot of the election as a whole.

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Download the presentation here, us-presidential-election-overview

I am happy to do a Skype briefing or in-person meeting (for those of you in Europe) if you want to talk more in-depth about the campaign strategies and tools that you can utilize in your own campaign efforts, or you are just curious about what to make of the US election, and importantly, what to watch for before November 8! Drop me a line at kristina@karakoyunstrategies.com if we can be a resource for you, or just to tell me what you think – what are you paying attention to in terms of campaign tactics, what motivates or persuades you? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Gender Gap Analysis

My colleague Stephanie Berger (partner and co-founder of RISE,) and myself were guest speakers at the European Association of Political Consultant’s Annual conference in May, presenting on “Women Rule! Or do they? Campaign strategies to ensure greater representation.

DOWNLOAD: US Gender Gap and Women’s Global Particiaption, RISE

What’s included:

Up-to-date information and analysis of the women’s vote in the US Presidential election as well as global strategies to increase women’s political participation based on my recent work on projects to spur grassroots pushback and systemic reform for women in politics.

Featuring:

  • Analysis of gender and the Presidential election in the US. There has never been a presidential election where women’s issues have been so prominent on both sides of the aisle. Three out of every five advertising dollars (58 percent) spent by Clinton reference women’s rights, gender equality or equal pay. Why is this? How may it play out for advocates and for the campaigns?
  • Strategies to support women candidates based on our experience working with women candidates.
  • Gender gap in voting and creative ways it is being addressed with the Anti Trump ad, “Real quotes from Donald Trump”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKmhK8G–7c,
  • Evidence-based research to work between elections to address inequality and soften the ground for women candidates
  • Testing of implicit and explicit bias against women in politics in Ukraine
  • Male allies research for Syrian women’s inclusion
  • Czech Republic media monitoring accumulating in an annual sexist ad of the year campaign
  • Nigeria’s Violence Against Women in Elections campaign

I am tracking the women’s vote in the US and will be updating new and exciting examples of global pushback strategies for women in politics in all the interesting places I have the honor of working! So be sure to check back for more…

Speak like a Pro

keep-calm-and-get-your-public-speaking-onOut of all of the trainings I lead –whether designing complex civic advocacy strategies, developing grassroots tools for social change, or working with structures within political parties – I am increasingly being asked to talk about public speaking, professionalization and image management for women. The issue of effective communication, attire and presence are equally as important as the tough strategic stuff. And for some women, this is in fact the tough stuff.

Whether speaking at a conference, lecturing for the first time, presenting your ideas in your workplace or just speaking up in a crowd, speaking in public can be a nerve-wracking experience. This is true even for the most confident communicators.

For a one page summary, check out the article I was the featured in with the Internatioanl Women of Istanbul’s Lale magazine, How to Speak Well in Public

Gender and Public Speaking

I have been in far too many conversations lately where women end up revealing to me how much they “hate” public speaking. Those words are like nails on a chalkboard to me. Never does a man tell me he hates public speaking, even if he does. Women’s voices are being muted in this world in so many different ways — the very least we can do is not contribute to that by self censoring!

Many women communicate from an assumed non dominant position, often diminishing and negating their words and impact. For instance they “forget” to mention their achievements and begin by saying “they don’t know much about” the topic, or they speak with lesser volume and eye contact. If they are American and under the age of thirty, they might have adopted the incredibility annoying habit of “uptalking” – ending a sentence as if it were a question. The underpinning issue with all of these bad habits is the lack of belief in one’s right to be worthy, to be heard and to take up space. Women suffer from this more so than men. Speaking in a manner where people hear you, where your ideas are effectively conveyed, is as much about confidence as it is skill.

So toughen up, ladies! Our voices need to be heard.

Download my Public Speaking Toolkit for tools and techniques to give you the skills and confidence necessary to raise your voice – Speak like a pro, or schedule a training session or one-on-one consultation with me!

 

 

Women and Money

PrintIn April I launched a new project with my colleague and good friend Stephanie Berger, called RISE which is a political consulting project that brings the tools of fundraising and resource development to the Middle East, Europe and Eurasia. We have vast experience in fundraising and decades of know-how in the NGO, advocacy, and political sectors in the US and globally. We believe that communities across the Middle East, Europe, and Eurasia need a helping hand. We are working with individuals on projects that give strength and empowerment to people focused on a range of issues such as women’s liberation, human rights, trauma therapy, Syrian refugees, business entrepreneurship, economic development, and other critical topics.

RISE was formed in the recognition that not enough is being done to build strong and sustainable organizations adjusted to the international realities where the culture of fundraising is so different, which is why we offer comprehensive services such as organizational management, strategic planning, resource development, event planning, and cross cultural trips between the US and international organizations and leaders.

We also have a special place in our heart for women.woman and money

In our experience, women worldwide are uncomfortable talking about money. Women are also more apt to believe that politics is dirty business. These issues are often intertwined, especially in the US where a major barrier for women’s political participation is access to money where a candidate must demonstrate an ability to raise thousands if not millions of dollars for campaigns.

Outside of the US, women are also expected to show they have access to resources and business networks where money flows.

Sadly, women are not taught financial planning or investment strategies as often as men are, which puts them at a leadership disadvantage. Not having the resources to exert on developing their own leadership profile in the community or as a candidate contributes to a widening gender gap. Nor are women included in the information boys club which gives them access to business and investment opportunities.

RISE is doing many different types of projects, with both men and women. But we also want women especially to gain the confidence necessary to raise money in order to restore the imbalance that has put women at a disadvantage. This will increase women’s leadership potential and participation in decision making globally.

So, get comfortable with money ladies, that’s where the power is. Whether that means knowing how to raise money, where to look for resources or how to make the ask, we have to restore the power imbalance of resources!

SheForShe: Why Women’s Solidarity is Still the Answer

Those of us in the gender biz who like to bring every conversation back to equality (yes, that’s me!) have rightly embraced the UN’s HeForShe campaign. While the movement for gender equality was originally conceived as a struggle led only by women for women in recent years men have begun to stand-up in addressing inequalities and discrimination faced by women and girls. HeForShe was created as a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all.

I say, “hurrah!” We need you men! We cannot possibly achieve equality without your support and advocacy. Plus, many of you are hot, so it’s nice to have you around. (See what I did right there? A little bit of reverse sexism just to keep things interesting). And good one UN Women for coming with this term and organizing around it.

In fact, a great new application of this concept can be found in an excellent IFES report on male allies for women’s equality in Syria.

Yet, as I begin another year of digging into strategies to help women gain more meaningful power over their lives and choices, I still feel more urgency about ensuring that we women are supporting women, not tearing each other down. The interest in male allies is a new and important phenomenon, but let us not lift the pressure to create female solidarity at the same time. Paradigm shifts are not going to happen without this. Men will simply never be as self-interested in helping women as much as women.

I was reminded of this in three ways over the last couple of weeks:

  1. Women are women’s worst enemy. If you believe it, what’s up with that? 

I had a conversation with a newly made friend the other day about what happens when women work together —  just women. The notion was that terrible things ensue! Popular culture would have us picturing cat fights, hair pulling, and high drama when too many women are forced together. Is this really fair? Everyone has their own experience, which I won’t argue against.  But what we forget to consider is that perhaps the lack of desire to work together (or effectiveness at working together) is merely a byproduct of not having equal power. Women utilize what powers we have at our disposal, and sometimes that is the form of negative words and actions, competitions and rivalries to get ahead when we aren’t operating on a level playing field to begin with.

But, why do we want ALL of something, anyway? All female or all male is, literally, missing something. A  workplace, a school, a local city council is more balanced with a diversity of everything – gender, sexual orientation, education, experience, socio-economic backgrounds and so on and so forth.  I don’t want to live on a planet just of women, (insert stereotype or joke here), but I also reject the notion that some character flaw exists in women that prevents them from supporting each other. Let’s flip the conversation by recognizing the ways in which society actively prevents us from supporting each other when we are stopped from attaining equal power in meaningful ways in our lives.

One Turkish organizations that I am honored to work with on women’s leadership actively confronts this by doing sessions about the negative role of gossip among college-age women, which is a particularly viscous tool in the Middle East. I don’t meant to pick on the Middle East. Every country needs to do better by women. But there is an absolute correlation with women having weaker structures and less institutional power in society and the presence of discrimination. There are few political parties, very few women in elected office and conditions that prevent women from organizing politically in much of the Middle East. Take a look at the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report to see where the Middle East ranks. It ain’t pretty. So the role of gossip in these countries becomes a de facto tool of power.

2. We are a product of an environment that does not see women equally

Let’s bring it back to politics, my favorite topic. Some women don’t consider themselves as being subjected to sexism, personally. Really? Okay, I guess lucky you! You my dear are the one exception! Sorry to break the news, this isn’t how it works.  Gender discrimination is not just an individual experience, but a systemic one that we have to accept is a problem for all women (yes, all women!) before we remedy this. It does not mean that all women are victims, but it means we face something unique by virtue of having a uterus!

If women don’t consider their individual role in a world that is unequal for women, how can a movement be built?  A well-defined problem is half the solution. There’s loads of evidence about the way that sexism and discrimination effects voting patterns, for example. And voting is part of this little thing we call elections, which impacts whose in office, which impacts decision-making structures, which leads to whether policies to address discrimination are promoted so that women have rights and opportunities equal to men. Men comprise 78% of parliaments across the world. No wonder things are not going so smashingly!! Not because men suck, of course they don’t (see HeForShe above), but because of that little called diversity and pluralism.

The problem is two-fold:

(1) women are not running for office in equal number to men in part because party leaders are not nominating them in equal numbers. When more women run, more women win, but we need parties to see the value of female candidates and support them in advance through training, financing, leadership development, and all the activities that lead to winning candidates AND winning parties

(2) when women do run, they face discrimination just because they are women. Women have less access to resources based on their gender (and less developed networks of support), and they are often subjected to sexist media coverage as a way to demean them or remind voters that they are the lesser gender.

We have ways to fight this. Many efforts are underway in the world to support women in politics. But let’s be real, sexism and discrimination toward women has an impact. A new study shows that it’s harder for female candidates to prevail in an election because many people don’t see women as leaders as a result of hidden bias that can emerge in the voting booth. My case study from Ukraine shows how we can overcome that through evidence-based research and campaigns to change attitudes about leadership in advance of elections.

We have smart and well executed strategies to turn this around, so don’t throw up your arms in despair and believe all is lost. Yet, we need more of these, and we need to start by  recognizing that this common thread of discrimination is present in politics and in everyday life in order to motivate people to embrace efforts to change it, together, women and men.

3. History shows, that when women support each other, good things happen.

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I was back home for the holidays and reminded again of the pioneering kick ass women who fought for women’s rights in the part of the US where I grew up. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She helped pass the 19th Amendment, giving all women the right to vote, and was a committed pacifist. She was born in Missoula, Montana in 1880 and died the year I was born, in Kalispell, Montana, in 1973. Yes, Ms. Rankin, I got the baton hand off, we’re all good now. (Oh, if it were only that easy.)

I am proud of the pioneering women from the American West who fought for their voice and importantly, for the the voice of others, because they knew we were stronger, together.

“If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”-Jeanette Rankin

I just finished reading Mona Eltahawy’s revealing book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. There are many lessons and observations to orient one to the challenges of the Middle East. But what I am left with is the notion that no matter the country or the context, we are stronger when our voices and hands are raised together. We are emboldened to speak truth to power when we share our common stories and experiences about what it means to be a woman, together. We will have more power to address issues like child marriages, domestic violence, labor force policies, and women’s political participation when we create the conditions for women’s solidarity in spirit and voice. We are STRONGER TOGETHER. But that means we have to actually be together.

So what can YOU do?
  1. Be kinder to your sisters in arms! It starts at a very basic level, which is to suggest, be nice! In that vein, check yourself. I love Lilly Singh’s YouTube channel with positive messages for women, including this recent #GirlLove campaign to encourage women to go easy on other women.
  2. Recognize our leadership biases and challenge that the next time you go to the voting booth or in your professional life. One  study showed that the higher a woman rose to power, the less likely she might be to help other women do the same. I have seen this in politics too. We have to recognize and fight our own biases.
  3. Whether you are politically active or not, try to organize a project in 2016 that puts you in place of encouraging women’s solidarity, through your actions, not just your words.  Do something different to show that you are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  4. Mentor someone. Be a role model. Reach out.  You don’t have to do this in a formal capacity, but think about someone who has asked you for help, or for whom you know extra encouragement and kind words would go a long ways.  As Lao Tzu so wisely said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Help make that first step with a woman or girl in your life.

This is where the path to solidarity starts, in simple acts of grace and compassion toward our soul sisters in our community and around the world.

May it be a better year for women in 2016 because we want it to be, and our actions follow our desires!

 

Case Study: Can TV Ads Help Women Get Elected?

The short answer to that question is no, not by themselves. What about poll tested messages relayed through a creative advertising campaign in conjunction with a grassroots strategy to promote women as leaders? Why yes, that can work! A recent pilot project in Ukraine doing just than shows the efficacy of such an effort.

The Crisis in Leadership: Why We Need More Women

Women's Participation

Across the globe women on average comprise 22.3% of parliaments even though they are half of the world’s population. A great deal of attention is paid to the problem of women’s political participation with far too little energy spent on innovative solutions to fix it.

We have a crisis in leadership around the world. We need our best and brightest to step up, which includes women. Why? Because it’s only fair. Need more? Okay, let’s tick off a few more reasons. We need more women in power, alongside men, checking their influence, and shaping and cultivating our society. Would the policy priorities and outcomes be better for women with respect to education, health, child care, and violence against women if more women were policymakers in parliament helping shape this agenda? Yes, undeniably.

Research shows women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines and more sustainable peace. Simply stated, getting more women elected at the national and local is both the right thing to do and smart thing to do. It is the year 2015, women have broken through in other areas of public life and in different professions, why not politics?

Okay, so now that’s out of the way, how do we get there? What is the path to increase women’s participation, exactly? Well, turns out there are several things in that toolbox, like quotas. But let’s focus for a moment on the ingredient that may be most central, yet is paid attention to the least in international development projects to increase women’s political participation: we need more sophisticated communication campaigns to change attitudes toward women as leaders before, during and after elections.

Step 1: Focus on Creating an Enabling Environment
to Build Political Will 

Establishing a proper setting where more women can lead —  and thus more people are willing to vote for women candidates — requires a deeper set of strategies to create an enabling environment for women in advance of an election.

In every country I work in people tell me, “Voters are not willing to vote for women here, period. Our country is not like (fill in the blank, mostly likely it will include referencing a Nordic country, can you say Sweden or Finland?).” Keep in mind it is Rwanda that has the highest percentage of women in the world in parliament, at 63.8%, because of a quotas policy that opened the gate. In the process of rebuilding the country Rwandans made a conscious decision to put inclusiveness and equality at the heart of their reconstruction process. Now the prominent role played by women in parliament and throughout the government has helped transform attitudes throughout Rwandan society toward women. More work needs to be done, but it has created the opening to make that more possible.

Furthermore, a little known fact: in Scandinavian countries quotas were not introduced until the 1980s, when women’s parliamentary representation already exceeded 25%. Women’s representation increased even further as a result of their long history of mobilization of women into the labor market and into political life. The point being: the conditions in which women are a greater part of parliament comes down to political will and the acknowledgement of women’s contribution. There has to be a desire on the part of stakeholders to address the systemic barriers blocking women’s entry into the workforce and elected office.

Political will to change the system is one part of the solution.

So how does that desire begin, and more importantly how can we influence it? If it’s not there on its own we can influence it through organizing and communication to transform the idea of women as leaders. For each country the problems and the solutions for involving more women in politics differs slightly, but they all have in common the need to change the values behind leadership in order to create a greater desire for women leaders among the voting public.

So, how do we get there?

Step two: Test your Assumptions about
Public Willingness to Vote for Women 

First, let’s examine the assumptions underlining the lack of women’s political participation. How do we know people are not willing to vote for women? Is this a gut feeling or a research-based position? Are we basing this conclusion on election results or actual data?

Research can show us the pathway to influencing rigid gender roles about women and their place in society. We cannot simply rely on the low number of women elected to justify the conclusion that people are not willing to vote for women. If women are less than 20% of all candidates, how can we expect they are going to comprise 50% of parliament anytime soon? Low representation of women is also the result of having so few women to vote for in the first place. Low representation is not evidence enough of voter attitudes toward women.

Unfortunately, political parties fail to recruit women as candidates also based on these assumptions, which turns into a self fulfilling prophecy. If women are blocked from leadership positions in the party or politics, or not given the opportunity to be candidates in equal proportion as men, how can we ever hope to vastly increase their numbers, or overcome stereotypes about women’s leadership qualities and qualifications in order to reach some type of parity?

While we can determine through other means that women candidates face barriers at the ballot box, we still need to have the specific evidence of why and how exactly. We need to understand what the attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes are in very specific and measurable ways. It is only through this evidence that we can hope to organize a targeted campaign to tackle what we assume to be insurmountable attitudinal barriers among voters that create an obstacle for increasing women’s participation.

Step 3: Do the Research! Seriously, you really can! 

The tools of advocacy campaigns, including public opinion research, have become much more affordable and in the reach of NGOs. I do not accept the assumption that research is too expensive, this does not match the reality of how polling is used all over the world. Research-based evidence, through public opinion surveys and focus groups, to redefine the leadership qualities of women, is fundamental to challenging sexist perceptions about women candidates.

Do we have research that shows all things being equal, men and women are going to discriminate against a qualified candidate just because of her gender? And on what basis? What are the underlining assumptions behind such attitudes? And most importantly, have messages based on altering attitudes been tested, in order to be used in change oriented campaigns? Millions of dollars are spent on sophisticated ad campaigns to get people to stop smoking, use a condom or vaccinate their children. Where are the ad campaigns, and the research efforts, about voting for women? I can count the number of such campaigns on one hand.

CASE STUDY: Research into action 

Over a two year period I was an adviser to the National Democratic Institute’s effort to increase women’s political participation. Among other activities we chose to focus change the role of women as leaders in the minds of Ukrainian voters through a public opinion-based ad campaign using tools of grassroots organizing. This campaign was made possible by the generous support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation and several others.

Through a series of surveys and focus groups conducted by Lake Research, the following picture emerged:

  • In 2012 nearly half of Ukrainians believed there were too few women in elected office. The research showed us that demonstrating how women are different, and priming the areas where they are perceived as better managers than men, could help convert this sentiment into greater support for women candidates.
  • There was only a 2% difference between men and women in terms of strong likelihood of getting involved in political life.
  • By 2014, 49% of all Ukrainians thought there were not enough women in elected office. And nearly half of women, irrespective of age, believed that increasing the number of women in power in Ukraine would have a significant impact.
  • Research also showed that women enjoyed strong advantages on a host of substantive issues, including child care, health care, education, and ending discrimination against women. Respondents also saw women as much more likely to help children, families, and seniors, and better equipped to address concerns over pensions and retirement security—though this last issue exposes a gender gap in the data. While many of these associations stem from traditional stereotypes of women as “caretakers”, they also provide a strong foundation on which to build a profile for women leaders on issues more central to the ongoing public debate in Ukraine.

Step 4: Put the Research Into Action,
Start a Campaign 

With a team of local and international ad campaign experts that included GMMB and the Ukraine-based firm Me Too, we made a strategic choice to target women in this campaign given that women were more receptive to the call to action and to our messages. The evidence showed that creating a narrative through a visual story — showing women as leaders in their everyday lives, while working with men collaboratively —  should be the basis of the campaign. Further research showed that despite upheaval in the country there was still an opportunity to link the desire for change with the role of women in political life and to capitalize on women’s strengths in terms of both issues and values.

The campaign had three prongs:

  • Media component: Identifying effective ways of changing the portrayal of women leaders through targeted advertising campaign on TV, outdoor, Internet, social media
  • Civic action component: Maximizing positive perceptions of women in politics through local pilot public relations campaigns and warming up media environment in advance of the advertising campaign
  • Public education component: Identifying ways to minimize negative gender biases in media through innovative web-based anti-sexism campaign and training of journalists on gender sensitive coverage Anti-sexism web campaign: www.povaha.org.ua
    (“Povaha” means “Respect” in English)

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Watch the ad

Web hub with the ad campaign, http://50vidsotkiv.org.ua

Using social media to stir the environment and generate conversation on gender
Facebook campaign, https://www.facebook.com/povaha.org.ua?fref=ts 

A pool of journalists from across Ukraine were also trained on gender-sensitive news and editorial coverage. A network of trainees is active and keeps applying standards of unbiased coverage, and women leaders are starting to pushback themselves, like when a deputy minister told Ukrainians to stop “beauty shaming” women politicians.

The Results: More Women Were Elected and
the Conversation about Women as Leaders has exploded

The Revolution of Dignity and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine have been explosive events through which successful positioning of women candidates was made possible, by message research that enabled advocates to help women seize ground on dimensions of strength, leadership, and an ability to bring order, while simultaneously elevating the salience of the qualities that women are perceived as dominate in — such as ethics, justice, and empathy. This message environment made possible through research and deep examinations of women was illustrative in the 2014 local elections in Kyiv and special parliamentary election.

The 2014 parliamentary election was a small improvement overall in the position of women in the parliament (nearly two points compared to the 2012 Parliament), which amounts to 11.3%, but given the circumstances of a snap election and a country in war time, any increase of women elected to higher office is significant because it demonstrates the perceived contribution and potential of women leaders even in times of conflict when “strength” and “toughness” (qualities often associated more with men) are of greater importance to voters.

In 2014 a much bigger leap forward was made by the women standing on party lists, largely as a result of the introduction of a gender quota in 2013 and decisions made by some parties to place more women in winnable positions. The trends are positive for future women candidates and the commitment of new parties to ensuring more gender parity.

The end result: Progress for women in 2014 is an indication of Ukraine’s ability to systematically address barriers to women’s political participation election by election.

In addition to parties nominating more women in the winnable positions on the party lists in the last election, new parties have worked on gender mainstreaming and adopted strategies of women’s empowerment since. For the first time in many years a woman was nominated as vice-speaker of the Ukraine Parliament. Political parties have also adopted internal quotas for women, established women’s departments, and are acting more strategically about the role of women in advance of the 2015 local elections.

A quotas reform legislative package has been developed in the context of election reform and will continue as these legislative debates on election law continue. The need for corrective affirmative action is now obvious for both the civic activists working on gender and for the parliamentarians themselves.

Success: Raising measures that remove barriers for women in Ukrainian politics into the public dialogue have been made possible by spurring the conversation about women and politics in a more public way with an organized advocacy and communications campaign about women as leaders.

The great news is that research shows voters are looking for a new type of politics, which Ukraine deserves and aspires to. Women are strongly associated with the new way of doing politics as those who are in touch with people and well equipped to make reforms. Those standing at the forefronts of gender equality campaigns need to take the next step to build on what was achieved and push out more public communication efforts to alter public sentiment. The opportunity for women is greater than it has ever been in Ukraine’s history, which is significant because realizing the ambitious goals set forth by the Revolution for Dignity requires that women get the political respect they too fought side by side men to achieve.

Feminism Does Not Work Here

I hear this far too often when working on strategies to increase women´s political participation, especially in counties where such efforts are most desperately needed. The idea stems from this argument: feminism is an “export” or a Western phenomenon that does not translate because of the “cultural constructs of gender in our country.” News bulletin, feminism isn´t a widely popular construct anywhere, even in the United States and Western Europe.

Are you a feministYet, this rationalization in developing democracies ends up sounding reasonable, even among advocates for the cause, and here´s why that´s wrong.

First, it´s important to recognize that creating more equitable systems for women does not automatically work anywhere. It takes effort to get women to take up the mantle of equality, even women MPs. It takes work to motivate people in countries with broken politics to believe that they can change the situation, and that women are valuable partners in that change. It is difficult to figure out what issues are most ripe for action. You cannot boil the ocean, so choices have to be made about which issues are most likely to capture attention, influence the public dialogue, and help create a greater space for women. But, it´s less work when you develop a strategy, and pushback a bit at the same time.

Secondly, let´s keep in mind that resistance to “feminism” is often the result of resistance to the values behind feminism. Simply stated, some people are rejecting to the concept that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities (see the clever infographic to the right). Some people don´t like the idea of equality, no matter what words you use. The trick is to find those people and avoid them in your communication´s strategy, because you will not likely win them over, at least in stage one of your efforts, which should build a base of messengers first in order to move to broader persuasion later.

Advice for dealing with the anti-feminists

There are three ways to constructively create a movement for women´s equality, no matter the country.

1. Find the right words.

So if feminism does not work here (wherever “here” may be), find the words that do. What is the shorthand, what language best connects? I am a big advocate of using research-based evidence to form arguments around women´s political participation and have been involved in several polls and focus groups to figure out the right language, and better understand the barriers. Sitting in focus group after focus group, I can confirm, concepts of women´s equality are not well understood because the conversation is often muted. It is no coincidence that the countries most resistant to the language of feminism are the ones with the lowest participation of women. As advocates we have to find the balance of being culturally relevant with our terminology (and just as importantly the narratives) that move public opinion versus being overly timid because we think we have a problem of syntax when really we have a conflict of values.  Country´s like Georgia and Ukraine have done in-depth research to examine public opinion and use this information to shape smart advocacy campaigns, like the Women are 50% campaign. Efforts to help illustrate the impact of sexism are also necessary.

2. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

This famous quote is music to an organizer´s ear. Every country is at a difference place in the spectrum of women´s rights. Decide where to start, what issue to tackle, and what tactics to use. Progress will happen over time, but there has to be movement in this trajectory. Choose not to be cynical and convince others of the value. Even in the US and Europe feminism has gotten a bad rap. To some it is a proud way to identify not only their work, but their entire believe system which defines who they are. To others it is an old and tired concept with issues and ideas that a new generation of women don´t relate to. And so what? The walkaway lesson is to develop a theory of change, find your targets and organize around them. Do what you can, but do something. And spend less time worrying about the critics and instead build power with people who share the same values.

3. Put your communication`s strategy at the forefront.

The road to women´s equality is not filled with a bunch of handbooks (although I have helped author some of those!). Like any movement, change comes through the actions of people. You have to move from theoretical to the actual. I could talk for hours about quotas formulas (constitutional or legislative), mechanisms within political party for gender equity, and model legislation to protect women against domestic violence. None of these things matter if we don´t have the political will to challenge stereotypes about women and fight sexism in media and politics — the very foundation of feminism. Our policy cart is often before the organizing cart of social change.

Opportunities TOMATO

There is good news. There are new openings in many countries where women activists and policymakers are pushing the boundaries on gender equality, by focusing not just on technical parameters for equality, but rather communication strategies to create an enabling environment for women´s participation.

  • Technology, such as social media, enables advocates to change the conversation and question stereotypes about women as well as expose everyday experiences with sexism. Such campaigns are opportunities to bring more people into a conversation about the political implications of gender. Crowdsourcing or crowdmapping platforms are being used creatively to focus attention on a range of women´s issues, from projects to prevent violence, to those that motivate the armchair activists to action.
  • As mentioned above, framing matters. There is more sophistication in efforts to engage the public in a dialogue around gender roles and how this impacts women’s political participation. Public opinion research has given advocates better tools to evaluate effective messages, choose the right messengers and make specific word choices in order to talk effectively about the implications of rigid gender roles and impact of discrimination. For more on effective message development, download my how to guide and Toolkit. 
  • Public attention to violence against women creates openings in which to redefine women’s roles in society. Creating a groundswell of “outrage” is important (check out recent examples from a range of different countries and cultures, Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns). When women are subjected to inequality or violence, especially of a high-profile nature, we can turn these tragedies into opportunities and create a strong and more stable platform in which to demand changes for women. The role of civil society in this regard is extremely important.

 

Georgia case study and women taking the lead

A great example of all of these efforts can be seen in Georgia, a country I have been lucky enough to support in their efforts to increase women´s political participation, which is growing stronger month by month, year after year. Watch a newly released documentary on how the women´s movement is organizing their efforts, all across Georgia, to pivot from violence against women to women´s political participation.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of focusing on women politicians and what they wear and not offering the same scrutiny toward notable male politicians.
Pointing out the hypocrisy of focusing on women politicians and what they wear and not offering the same scrutiny toward notable male politicians.

It was a privilege to present some of these concepts at a recent forum on women´s leadership organized by National Democratic Institute with the support of USAID and in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR). My ideas for developing a strategic communications campaign around pushback can be found here, Tools for Women´s Leadership-Research, Communications & Technology.

Sixty women came together representing 15 countries in southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Each participant was from a position of power in government, politics, civil society, and/or the private sector. A lot of great lessons were shared that give me reason to be more hopeful than discouraged at the power and potential of change happening all around the world for women.

In sum, there is no shortcut to the hard work involved in bring attention to discrimination, building resistance to it, and ultimately changing attitudes and behavior that make the world more open to the ideals of feminism, regardless of what you call it.

 

Belgrade group picture
Changemakers across Southeast Europe and Eurasia working to redefine women´s leadership by example.

 

Let’s talk about boobs

A headline like this is sure to peak the interest of many, and equal discomfort of others. It is a problem that not enough countries outside of the West are in fact talking about boobs and the issues surrounding women’s health care. In conservative cultures across the world it is taboo to talk openly about breasts. This reality has a direct impact on the detection and treatment of breast cancer and possess some serious challenges in how we organize awareness and advocacy campaigns for prevention.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. One out of eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer annually and 143,000 deaths occur each year in Europe as a result. While the reality of cancer is grim, the good news is that efforts to address this as a health care crisis have substantially changed attitudes, approaches and outcomes for women who face the disease.

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When did Women Get Active?

In Western countries, campaigns to bring attention to breast cancer began in the 1970s as women increased a sense of control over their own health and healthcare options. Women began to believe that they had a right to be active participants in their health care treatment decisions — a right that was earned and not assumed. Awareness about breast cancer shifted dramatically when women began speaking out as survivors rather than staying hidden as victims. Attitudes toward breast cancer moved from thinking of the disease as a death sentence to something that was treatable.

The second stage of breast cancer awareness moved into advocacy in the 1980s and 90s with women and healthcare activists decrying the lack of understanding of the causes of breast cancer. Advocates were successful in pushing for additional funding to examine causes and assess effectiveness of various prevention and treatment options.

What was the outcome of increased advocacy?

Increased attention to breast cancer research resulted in:

  • Better surgical options
  • Improvements in turnaround of pathology reports
  • Treatments centers within hospitals, and
  • Studies into environmental toxins and other potential causes of breast cancer, which are increasingly examined and regulated, although some would argue that despite the $6 billion raised for breast cancer each year, we are woefully behind understanding causes

The challenge: breast cancer prevention advocacy in conservative cultures

In more conservative cultures open discussion of breast cancer has historically been taboo. If the breast is associated with sexuality instead of health, some view it as immoral for women to go to the hospital for screenings or discuss it even within their family.

So, let`s get this straight. Not only are the body parts of women objectified all around the world in entertainment, media and culture in general, but when those said body parts have a problem, it is suddenly inappropriate to discuss them in what may be a life or death situation? The risk of this cultural discomfort is that women tend to die at greater rates in countries where the disease is detected later and understanding of related health care options is more rudimentary and advocacy of any sort is often viewed as inherently political.

The Middle East tends to have younger sufferers of breast cancer in comparison to the rest of the world. In Lebanon, for example, 50 percent of breast cancer patients are below the age of 50 – this compares to 25 percent in the United States and Europe. While the incidence of breast cancer in the Middle East is much lower than say Europe or US, the mortality rate is higher. According to the World Health Organization, this is because the region lacks a culture of regular breast cancer screening and therefore, early detection of the disease in part because talking about boobs is uncomfortable culturally.

Another issue concerns visibility events to raise awareness are whether they are culturally appropriate. Women and men in Saudi Arabia are not going to be running a marathon together raising funds against breast cancer anytime soon. Campaigns like Race for the Cure, which has been a great vehicle to raise awareness in the West, just don’t translate in countries like Kuwait, Libya and the like, although the United Arab Emirates started “The Pink Walkathon” a few years ago which is one of the biggest breast cancer walks in the Middle East. Where there is a will, there is a way!

So what can we do? 4 Simple Lessons

1. Target daughters as educational vehicles for their mothers

Take the approach of Europa Donna in Turkey, an organization I work with in Istanbul. Given increased attention to breast cancer prevention, every woman in Turkey above the age of 50 is entitled to a free mammogram. However, not many women take advantage of this option. The value of prevention cannot be overstated. Evidence has shown that outcomes are better when women are diagnosed and treated in units that meet the standards of EU guidelines. For this reason Europa Donna remains committed and steadfast in its mission to ensure that all women have access to high quality breast services.

“In Turkey, woman taking care of themselves is not important. They are mostly taking care of other people. If you tell them you should go to get the mammography, they don’t do it. But if you explain to their children the impact of early diagnosis through mammography and healthy living, healthy eating with regular exercise, which is hugely beneficial in the prevention of breast cancer, than they can be convinced and can encourage their mothers”¨ says Violet Aroyu, National Representative of the Turkey chapter of Europa Donna.

Through Europa Donna, high school students are the targets. All across Turkey programs are organized to provide education about breast health and cancer, so that they in turn can convince their mothers and other women in their families and neighborhoods, emphasizing the important of early diagnosis.

Peer-to-peer education has proven to be an effective means to get information to their target audience. Europa Donna uses seminars, documentaries, videos and social media sources to get their message to a teenage audience who is very receptive to the information. Read more about programs for breast cancer awareness in Turkey published in Lale, the magazine of the International Women of Istanbul. Turkey and Breast Cancer Awareness

A similar strategy, to find culturally relevant ways to motivate women to seek breast cancer screening, was rolled out in an animation video, ‘Shared Wisdom,” sponsored by GE. The video highlights GE’s “healthymagination” initiative, that works towards increasing access to high quality medical care to more people at lower costs with an emphasis on early diagnosis. Addressing the various societal concerns that discourage women to undertake breast cancer screening, the video also demonstrates how the new campaign has made screening convenient and easy to access for women.

2. Mind the culture

womeninMEIn countries were men are not going to be participating in the pink ribbon campaigns or talking openly with the women in their family about breast cancer, we can still push for creative and culturally appropriate awareness strategies to soften the ground, like Pink Hijab day

Furthermore, in a campaign from Qatar, advocates designed a presentation with messages specific to the principles of Islam —  what it means to be healthy and protect women through their guidebook on Muslim Women and Breast Cancer Prevention. In their material they use the words of Prophet Muhammad to make an argument for women to take care of their health as a tenet of the religion.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) is quoted as saying: “Make the best use of five things before the onset of five others: your life before your death, your health before your illness, your free time before being too busy, your youth before your old age and your wealth before you end up in poverty”. [Related by Al-Hakim and Al-Baihaqi on the authority of Ibn Abbas.]

3. Share stories 

The power of storytelling cannot be overstated as an essential advocacy tool on a wide range of topics. Stories help humanize an issue. Stories create a sense of shared experience. Breast cancer survivors have been encouraged to speak out publicly as a way to reduce the stigma of the disease and educate others. Stories from survivors are used to inspire hope, motivate and comfort others. Personal testimonials are used by nonprofit organizations, large and small, as well as a frequent feature in popular culture, as exemplified in the Women’s Health Magazine. In the Middle East, an online publication in the UAE is an example as well as the Model of Courage event in Qatar, sponsored by Ford. You may recall that it was Former First Lady Laura Bush who made breast cancer in the Middle East a focus through a trip taken to focus on joint partnerships for prevention. When high profile people speak out, it creates a climate where survivors can come forward without as much stigma.

4. Run for office, ladies!

When it comes to issues of equality, ultimately all paths should lead back to getting more women elected to public office. Advocacy and civic efforts outside of the halls of parliament are not enough. —Although women comprise half the population of the world, currently men make up 78.1% of seats in national parliaments worldwide. If the rate of progress stays the same as last year (about one percent difference), it will take us another 20 years before we reach parity. Likely it will be much longer! Why is this so important? Because when women are at the policy making table, issues like domestic violence, rape and breast cancer are moved from outside of the shadows and dealt with as public issues, with real solutions.

bkb508-119-2014-134224-high-jpgWomen leaders like Pakistani politician Fehmida Mirza, a breast cancer survivor and prominent leader, have made great strides to break the silence surrounding cancer. When women are in parliament they are in a better position to advocate for women’s health issues. Not all women need to take the mantel of breast cancer or focus just on women’s issues (a label which tends to marginalize the importance of social, economic and health care topics that disproportionately impact women), but some of them have to. While we need male allies, there is no country in the world were men are the primary architects of campaigns on breast cancer or violence against women. Madeline Albright makes an excellent case for the power and potential of women and their impact on policy in her Ted talk “On being a woman and a diplomat.”

Rather than these issues being a negative to women as candidates or elected officials, they can be used as organizing vehicles and leadership opportunities. In 2010 in Ukraine I was training candidates to run for office by teaching them how to organize their campaign, develop a message and implement a “door-to-door” program in order to talk to voters about why they should elect them (what a novel concept, but in developing democracies these are the building blocks of campaigning that have to be taught). I was lucky enough to work with Zinayida, age 65, who was running for local office in Zaporizhzhya. She won her race by mobilizing a team of 20 volunteers to go door-to-door and to speak directly with voters. She was a civic leaders who ultimately gained the support of her constituents by her experience providing rehabilitation and treatment to cancer patients. Zinayida, a breast cancer survivor, made a promise to herself during treatment to step into political office in order to push for health care policies as an elected official, if she lived. She survived the cancer, ran an all-volunteer campaign with little support from her party, and she won. She wrote about her personal experience in her campaign literature making the issue of breast cancer and her personal experience an asset — in fact her main campaign message.

Women can do what politicians are failing to do in many places around the world, connect better to average voters. After all, women tend to be in touch with everyday issues. Women know the price of groceries, moms know what is like to worry about a sick child home from school, and daughters know what it is like to care for aging parents who have poor access to health care and small pensions. Some women know what it is like for be a survivor of breast cancer. We need more people in power who are in touch with the lives of ordinary people and willing to talk about issues that are fundamental to women’s health and well-being.

TOMATOTools for future candidates:

  • Download the OSCE-ODIHR Handbook on Promoting Women’s Participation in Political Parties” which aims to encourage political party leaders, men and women alike, to support the integration of gender aspects into internal political party decision-making processes. It also seeks to develop the capacity of women politicians to advance their political careers.
  • 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.
  • An excellent library of campaign training material can be found at the National Democratic Institute‘s website in the updated Democracy and the Challenge of Change modules. These new training materials take best practices and approaches from NDI’s work around the world and make them into a set of tools to increase the quality of training programs for women as voters, advocates, elections officials, political party members, candidates and office holders. The training materials build on the 2011 guide, a resource for democracy practitioners to help them develop and carry out effective programs to bring more women in government and politics.

The Goodbye Boobs Party

Although this would not be possible or culturally appropriate in a Muslim country, it is useful to review the spectrum of communication at the grassroots — from women once they are empowered to take ownership of their health care decisions. After losing both her mother and her sister to breast cancer, Claira Hermet learned she had the BRCA 1 gene that significantly increases the risk of getting cancer. Claira made the incredibly brave choice to undergo preventative surgery by having a double mastectomy. She also had the courage and sense of humor to blog about it, raise public attention and funds for Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention. She held a Goodbye Boobs party before her surgery.  When we take what are otherwise private issues and shed some light and levity on them, real change becomes possible and women begin to see that they are not alone.

 

 

 

 

 

Superheroes as rape survivors? Creative ways to fight violence against women

A new comic book with a female rape survivor as its “super hero” has been launched to focus attention on the problem of sexual violence in India. When I first read this my thought was, “Wow, this is really innovative!” For social marketing campaigns in today’s age we simply must learn how to use the tools of popular culture to influence our target audience. Cutting through the clutter to approach an issue like rape, sexual violence and harassment in a way that actually changes behavior demands a great deal of creativity. Which is the goal, right? We are aiming to change behavior of perpetrators, and if not that, at least we can create the conditions that require a community to rethink their role in helping prevent violence.

PriyaShakti

My second reaction was a depressing “Wow!” We are in a major crisis around the world if the genre of comics and superheroes has moved from the buxomy Wonder Woman to girls who are victims of sexual violence. So long are the days of a warrior princess from the Amazon who fights for justice, love, peace, and sexual equality, using her jewelry as weapons (ladies, let’s be real, who doesn’t want a pair of indestructible bracelets and a tiara that serves as a projectile?). The comic version of Wonder Woman was later turned into a TV show. I fondly remember watching it with my sister in front of the television on Thursday nights in the 1980’s, simply mesmerized, eating our SpaghettiOs while subtly being fed a fair dose of women’s equality at the same time. I won’t delve into the sexism and gender stereotypes surrounding the Lasso of Truth (a weapon wielded around men mostly to force them to confess). The point being, the fact that stories are being created for young girls and boys with messages to either protect themselves against rape, or not be the rapist, is a sad indication of how dangerous the world is for young girls. All things considered, I would prefer our superheroes center around female leaders, not victims.

We have a problem today and problems require innovation

Violence against girls and women feels like it is at an all time high, even if statistically speaking there are many indicators that show women are doing better in the world. Yet, the crisis unfolds in story after story, country after country. In 2014 the world mobilized online against the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria through the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Months later with 219 girls still held captive, we can see the limitations of online mostly activism. Globally, Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan remain the world’s most dangerous countries for women due to a barrage of threats ranging from violence and rape to dismal healthcare and “honor killings.” In India, one rape is reported every 16 minutes, which means women are being raped by the minute every hour across the country. In the US, one in three women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Ray Rice, a former NFL running back, brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront after a security camera showed him knocking his then-fiancee Janay Rice out in a casino elevator.

Georgia DV
“We are together and we are many”, read one of the slogans on posters at a recent rally against domestic violence in Georgia

I spent a great deal of time in Georgia last year where the murder of 25 women in the first 10 months of 2014 (in a country of 4.4 million people), has sparked activism and outrage. The focus on women as victims has led to questions about the impact of women’s low participation in Georgia’s parliament. Would we pay more attention to problems like domestic violence and remedies to prevent violence if more women were policymakers? And the answer is yes, ding, ding, ding! Absolutely!

Let’s keep it simple. Violence against women starts with disrespect for women and girls. Violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon, irrespective of race, class or socioeconomic status. Democracy or no democracy, your country still has a problem with violence against women, just look at the explosion of campus-based sexual violence across American universities for a start.

Rape in places like India is the result of deep seeded attitudes toward women and their role in society. In working with Egyptian activists recently who are leading campaigns against sexual harassment, I was reminded of the roots of violence which first and foremost are about the perceived role of women and girls in society. Egyptians face obstacles not only with the harassers, but the police and everyday men who believe that if a woman is walking alone on the street she deserves “it,” which could mean she deserves anything from unwanted attention, luring looks, being called a whore, groping, and even gang rape. In order to get to the roots of violence, we have to start with changing attitudes toward women by asking ourselves: Are women in my country respected? Will they have opportunities? Do they have equal access to education? Do they control decisions about who they can marry and how many children they want to have? Do they have access to jobs that provide economic independence? Do we value their participation in public life? We can’t resolve the small issues, like walking alone, until we address the larger dynamics around women’s inequality.

So, we have a problem. A problem that demands we work on multiple levels to resolve.

Solutions: Combating Violence, Women’s Political Representation & Smarter Activism  

Creating alternative narratives through popular culture is one path to a solution. Which is why places like India and Pakistan are using the tools of comics to win hearts and minds of younger generations. The Peabody Award winning ‘Burka Avenger’ is another example, based on a mild-mannered Pakistani teacher with secret martial arts skills who fights local thugs seeking to shut down the girls’ school where she works. She has now moved on to fighting polio! Kudos to the men, by the way, who created these campaigns.

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With the Disney princess culture across the globe, an anonymous Middle Eastern artist created Happy Never After, to raise awareness campaigns targeting any girl or woman who has been subject to domestic violence. The aim of the poster series is to encourage victims to report their cases.

Another path to reducing violence against women is at the ballot box, one of the building blocks of equality. When women are at the policymaking table issues of violence against women are moved from outside of the shadows and dealt with as public problems, with practical solutions. The evidence is clear. Societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered. Across the globe we need more women in power (and men, but come on guys, enough of you are there)  who are in touch with the lives of girls and women and working to raise issues of violence prevention to be just as important as inflation, jobs and national security.

TOMATO

We also need to be smart about creative campaigns to change behavior. We need to share ways to spur the conversation with activist tools that are more strategic. Unlike some issues that just don’t translate country-to-country, lessons learned from campaigns against domestic violence apply all across the globe. Download my Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns to find out more about innovative approaches and creative ideas from Serbia to Saudi Arabia.

If engaging in a campaign, first, decide who your target is:

  • Are you trying to motivate the community to act to prevent violence? What is the aim of raising awareness?
  • If you are trying to raise awareness, decide among who you are trying to raise awareness and for what purpose.
  • Are there specific members of the community you are trying to target? Men or women? Family members? And if so, mothers, fathers? Victims?
  • Are you trying to get victims to seek help, the abuser to stop abusing, the community to care, or the government to take action?
  • Then, decide what your goal is and which type of action-oriented communications campaign best supports your goal.

Download the toolkit for more details. For more in the way of TV ads and public service announcements, check out my YouTube Channel on Domestic Violence.

I love the cartoons and comic strips that are helping us change the violent and complex world that unfolds before us on TV every single day. Such campaigns do their part to raise attention to these issues in a way that legislation only or technical support for gender equality can’t. But this alone is not enough. We need more serious attention and more stakeholders involved if we really want to create safety and justice for women and girls. It should not take a Wonder Woman to fight for gender equality, we need Everyday Woman to get organized and say, “enough is enough!” — although a projectile tiara to the head once in awhile could be fun.

 

 

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

Running-4-Office-Logo

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.

TOMATO

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.