THE IMAGINATION BARRIER
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has identified a stubborn “imagination barrier” that exists for voters when it comes to picturing women in elected offices which have historically been dominated by white men. Our research shows that when voters picture a governor, a majority still picture a man. The imagination barrier makes it difficult for voters to see a woman as an executive leader, after years or even decades of exclusively seeing men in these roles. Across the country, women campaigning for governor—whether they are running to be the first woman to lead their state, or the first Black or Native woman governor ever—have to overcome this barrier in order to succeed.
We know that it isn’t only winning a seat that breaks down the barrier. The more we see women candidates run for governor, the more comfortable voters get imagining women holding that seat. Women candidates demonstrating their qualifications, showing effective leadership, and highlighting their expertise (all areas we’ll cover in this guide) all contribute to surmounting the imagination barrier.
As more women are inspired to run for office not only at the gubernatorial level, but also for mayoral and presidential seats, the country’s collective ability to imagine women as executive-leader material will continue to grow. We’ve seen in states from Michigan to New Hampshire to New Mexico that when women lead as governors and as mayors, even more doors open for women in politics.
COMMUNICATING CONFIDENCE, STRENGTH, AND EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP
Women must be prepared before they publicly announce their plans to run for office. Showcasing executive leadership is critical. Women must underscore prior political experience with their history of professional accomplishments. Tying experience to accomplishments helps to establish qualifications—one of the hallmarks of electability.
Women candidates for major statewide office must come across as confident, qualified, and competent in their initial presentation. They also need to maintain that confidence, as it is critical to appearing qualified. Voters immediately hone in on perceived weaknesses, because women candidates have added visibility. While women candidates tend to hold on to doubts about whether they should be running, they cannot begin their campaigns looking anything but qualified and confident.
Voters punish women for on-the-job learning as a candidate and for campaigns that take time to ramp up; this erodes the sense that they are qualified. Women often start their campaigns with their personal stories and biographies, which makes them appear likeable and in touch—both important traits—but often does not do much to establish their qualifications and credibility.
So, what’s the secret? The best way for a woman candidate to establish her qualifications is to weave her experience and professional accomplishments into her narrative. To help women relay their qualifications, they must focus on both the presentation and content of their introductions. It is important for women to lead with their issue expertise and accomplishments before sharing their personal stories.
Voters believe that most women running for major office in their states are hard-working, qualified, confident, organized, knowledgeable, compassionate, assertive, strong, and leaders. While these are all positive qualities, they do not all convey to voters that a candidate is qualified. The traits that describe women who run for major statewide office and convey qualifications are confident, organized, and knowledgeable.
Women candidates must have these words written into their introductions and early descriptions, including their websites, announcements, mailers, and stump speeches.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
Voters decide whether a woman candidate is ready to lead, in part, based on her personal presentation. The emphasis voters place on personal style is substantial and multi-faceted. It’s important for women to have visibility early in the campaign. Although all candidates are judged on these attributes to some degree, women have a steeper climb—they must work harder— in convincing voters to judge them on their merits.
The Look. In order to be successful in this reality, women must be well-suited for the job: dressing appropriately for campaign events, whether they are at new construction sites or at a senior center, is critical. In short, dress the part: don’t wear heels to a picnic. And even casual attire must be professional.
The Sound. Tone of voice and speaking style also factor into the candidate’s presentation. Voters are in tune to whether a woman candidate sounds authoritative or bossy, serious or boring, high-pitched and unsure or clear and steady.
The Substance. Tone of voice and speaking style also factor into the candidate’s presentation. Voters are in tune to whether a woman candidate sounds authoritative or bossy, serious or boring, high-pitched and unsure or clear and steady.
The Substance. Voters say women convey their qualifications by: being prepared, answering tough questions, speaking with authority, projecting confidence, making and maintaining eye contact, and commanding respect.
The way a woman runs her campaign is also important. It is an opportunity to showcase that she has her act together, is a good leader, and an effective manager. Because of this, candidates must choose staff members they trust to make wise decisions independently.
Positive leadership styles that work for women also include being in touch, meeting with voters, and bringing men and women together—or Democrats and Republicans together —to get results. The latter is different than traditional messaging about reaching across the aisle. Results are key.
Voters are more accustomed to seeing women as part of a deliberative body, such as the legislature. When a woman is running to be CEO of her state, voters need more evidence to believe she is prepared to do the job than they do for a man.
Voters want to see specific financial, crisis management, and political credentials when evaluating whether a woman could handle the complexities of running a state. For instance, voters surveyed felt more confident in a candidate who had been a state treasurer when they were told that as treasurer, she got the state out of debt than they were in a candidate who did not mention her accomplishments as treasurer.
In contrast, men were assumed to be qualified to lead their state if they had a resume that simply listed positions of leadership and service. Women must show, where men can tell.
In the past, women held a huge advantage on being seen as change agents. That has diminished. However, as Americans express frustration with the political status quo, the perception of women as “different” in a sea of male elected officials and candidates offers them a distinctive advantage in the eyes of voters. Voters who see women as different from men when they serve as elected officials are more likely to support women.
Voters still, however, see women as outside the old boys’ network. They want assurance that women can lead and get the job done in the largely male game of politics. Women candidates especially need to tout their experience and track record, which can include taking on political insiders. Voters want to know women have the experience and skills to achieve change.
Women need to provide more evidence than men of expertise. The first way to relay that to voters is to make an excellent first impression—to hit the ground running and to maintain that momentum throughout the campaign.
What, exactly, does that look like? 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, and starting the campaign with a listening tour. These are also ways to demonstrate that a candidate is in touch with voters’ lives.
Families in America have evolved since the 1960s, when two- parent households were the norm, most adults were married, and less than a quarter of married women with children worked outside the home. Despite sweeping societal changes, traditional gender roles remain powerful, influencing what voters perceive to be acceptable and appropriate behavior for men and women.
As more women run for office and are elected, voters’ question how women can serve constituents and take care of family responsibilities at the same time. Women candidates wonder whether they should talk about their families and personal lives and how to do so without alienating voters. Fortunately, there are clear ways to navigate the terrain of talking about family life.
Voters recognize a double standard for moms, but actively and consciously participate in it. They express anxiety about a woman’s job in office taking a backseat to her role at home and wonder who is taking care of the children, especially if they are young. If a candidate doesn’t have children, voters worry that she may not be able to truly understand the concerns of families.
So, how do women candidates reconcile these facts with the reality of their own lives?
Women have the opportunity to be 360-degree candidates, using all of their expertise, backgrounds, and personal experiences to connect with voters. Managing a family— whether that includes a partner, children, parents, siblings, or any combination thereof—is certainly a facet of that full-life experience.
It is important for women candidates, no matter what their family situation is, to talk to voters about their personal lives. When questions arise about a woman’s ability to manage personal and professional responsibilities, she must respond. If voters’ doubts and concerns go unaddressed, it negatively impacts the candidate’s perceived likeability and effectiveness, both of which are essential to electability for women.
Women can successfully navigate these complexities by: addressing questions about their family lives directly and confidently; showing how their experiences contribute to their work on behalf of voters; and getting back to the issues that matter to their constituents.
According to interviews with candidates, their staff, media consultants, and other political players, embracing one’s 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.
Although women now often regularly raise and spend money in their campaigns on par with their male opponents, women candidates still report being excluded from financial circles that include the wealthiest and best-connected donors.
These circles are often based around corporate associations and specific industries—talk about old boys’ clubs—and rarely include many women executives or board members. As a result, there are fewer women to make introductions and open doors.
Women may also find they need to wage a “campaign of belief” with donors, and spend time highlighting their path to victory.
Well before a decision to run, women should be meeting with key allies and honing their campaign skills. This will enable them to hit the ground running, which we know is critical for women’s success with voters.
Women’s campaign teams should be sure to over-budget the time spent fundraising, and the candidate should be prepared to convince donors that she is worth the investment. A note: while focusing on the historic nature of a campaign may appeal to donors, voters want to see a woman candidate focused on local issues.