Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women

Our Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women offers the most direct, must-know advice we’ve gleaned for women elected officials and candidates running for office, and this newly updated edition is a concise look at what it takes for a woman to run and succeed.

Executive Summary

For over 20 years, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied every woman’s campaign for governor on both sides of the aisle, including real-time polling on voters’ views and post-election interviews with candidates and campaign staff. When the Barbara Lee Family Foundation opened its doors in 1998, only 16 women had ever served as governor in the history of the United States. In the years since, that number has more than doubled; it’s up to 45, but compare that to more than 2,300 men. There is more work to do:

  • Nineteen states have still never had a female governor.
  • Three women of color have ever been elected governor. There has never been a Black or Native woman governor.
  • Nine (the current number of women governors) is the highest number of women governors serving at one time.

Our Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women offers the most direct, must-know advice we’ve gleaned for women elected officials and candidates running for office, and this newly updated version is a timely, concise look at what it takes for a woman to run and succeed. From establishing qualifications to fundraising, handling sexism, and running as an incumbent, this nonpartisan guide shows that the challenges women face are surmountable—and they are often countered by strategic advantages.

The Key Findings

Overcoming The Imagination Barrier

Voters often have a stubborn “imagination barrier” when it comes to picturing women in elected offices which have historically been dominated by white men. The more we see women candidates run for governor, the more comfortable voters get imagining women holding that seat. Women candidates demonstrating qualifications, showing effective leadership, and highlighting their expertise all contribute to surmounting the imagination barrier.

Establishing Qualifications

The best way for a woman candidate to establish her qualifications is to weave her experience and professional accomplishments into her narrative – before sharing her personal story and background. To help women relay their qualifications, they must focus on both the presentation and content of their introductions. Also, calling a woman qualified helps voters see her that way.

Showing Expertise

Women need to provide more evidence than men of expertise. Women must show, where men can tell. The first way to relay that expertise to voters is to make an excellent first impression and hit the ground running. Ways to do that include:

• Standing up for herself in a debate
• Standing up for voters and their interests in a debate
• Fielding tough questions from a reporter early in the campaign
• Starting the campaign with a listening tour

Handling A Crisis

The ability to handle a crisis has consistently been a key component of a woman candidate demonstrating her qualifications. In the midst of a crisis, voters want a problem solver who is creative, realistic, strong, and decisive—someone who listens and projects calmness and confidence. Voters also want a candidate who takes a 360-degree view of what needs to happen before, during, and after a crisis. Voters indicate “being a good communicator” as the top trait for women leaders in a crisis.’

Putting Sexism In Its Place

Despite recent advances for women in politics, candidates for office still face sexism on the campaign trail. The conventional wisdom for women candidates to stay silent in response is not an effective response, as voters view how a woman handles sexism as a leadership test she can pass. Voters support a woman in speaking out about sexism if it aligns with her core values to do so. They prefer a calm, confident, and professional response that reflects values of equality, fairness, and what is best for all women and girls.

Talking about Family

Women have the opportunity to be 360-degree candidates, using all of their expertise, background, and personal experiences to connect with voters. Managing a family is certainly a facet of that full-life experience. Embracing family as part of the campaign can reveal a positive and warm dimension to a serious candidate. It is also a chance to share the role family has played in motivating a candidate to pursue public office.


Women candidates still report being excluded from financial circles that include the wealthiest and best-connected donors. These circles are often based around corporations and specific industries and rarely include many women.

Qualifications and Likeability

Qualifications and likeability are closely linked for women candidates – so there are dual consequences when they make mistakes on the campaign trail. It’s critical for women to use action-oriented language to show how they got results (this helps convey they are both qualified and likeable).

Mastering Issue Advantages and Disadvantages

Voters want to know that women can handle budgets, taxes, and the economy. This area is generally perceived as a weakness for women candidates and not a traditional area of female expertise. Women have advantages on issues that are traditionally “women’s issues”: education, healthcare, and women’s health. Voters are split on who handles the economy better – men or women.

When it comes to less traditional experience—economic development, serving on a finance committee or economic task force—highlighting accomplishments helps women candidates unlock doors to office and level the playing field by establishing credibility as a leader. Women also now get as much credit as men for being good on the economy when they are good on other issues.

Contrasting with Opponents

Voters remember negative ads from women candidates more than negatives from male candidates, all things being equal. It works for a woman candidate to represent herself in an ad, confidently speaking for herself and her positions. Conventional wisdom has said that women should distance themselves from the negative. We did not find that. Also contrary to common thinking about contrasting, humor can work for a woman. It adds an element of the unexpected, which helped voters remember the ad.

Understanding the Distinction Between Strength and Toughness

Strength differs from toughness. The distinction that voters draw may lie in the difference between the personal and the political. Strength is seen as a function of character, while toughness is demonstrated through actions in the political arena. In the past, toughness was one of the strongest predictors of the vote and the most difficult trait for women to demonstrate while maintaining their likeability, a key component of electability.

Showcasing Honesty and Ethics

Voters give women an advantage on honesty and ethics. This advantage can be dramatically reversed if voters perceive that a woman candidate has been dishonest or acted unethically. A woman candidate who falls off her political pedestal pays a high price in the loss of voter esteem. Women can maintain that advantage by showcasing integrity, transparency, and consistency.

Demonstrating Resilience Following Mistakes

When women make mistakes, they need to work immediately with their campaigns to engage in crisis communications. One key strategy is to respond quickly with a succinct, straight answer and then introduce third-party validators who can reinforce the candidate’s qualifications. This strategy worked for women candidates and did not work for men candidates.

Relaunching After a Loss

Historically, women candidates have faced questions about their qualifications and likeability in the campaign post-mortem period. Because voters remember and penalize women’s mistakes on the campaign trail, women candidates may feel that running again after losing a campaign is not a viable path forward. However, voters are incredibly open to the idea of a woman relaunching herself as a public figure and running again after a loss. In fact, a woman can start her next campaign as soon as her concession speech or statement.

Running For Reelection

When a woman serves as governor, voters do not assume she is doing a good job, nor do they take her word for it. However, voters do recognize that women, especially women of color, serving in executive office are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. To effectively communicate her record with voters, and woman incumbent must proactively lay out what she has accomplished while in office. Voters prefer for her to use specific examples and benchmarks to show how she has helped communities, and how she has gotten results as an executive leader.

Download the full PDF here.