Speaking with Authority (2001)

Executive Leadership

Going Where Few Have Dared to Go

“For people to get comfortable seeing women in executive roles, they have to see women in executive roles. They have to see women run.”
– Candidate

They Just Can’t Imagine a Woman in Charge

Voters have a hard time picturing a female governor: Only four women are governors today. At this writing, only two CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies are women. Few role models mean low expectations – it’s the “there aren’t any so there won’t be any” syndrome.

“[It] is just people’s gut that a governor is male. I mean, if people close their eyes and were asked to envision a governor, it would be a guy,” said one campaign consultant.

Few Role Models

Both voter and candidate research suggest that one reason women are rarely elected governor is the lack of female executive role models in the culture. Burdened with cultural norms that men, rather than women, fill executive positions, few women have ascended to the top job.

Voters tend to be more skeptical of women in elected executive roles for the same reasons that they are skeptical of women in chief executive roles in business: Are they really up to it? Do they really have the skills? Can they make the tough decisions? Do they have enough experience?

Breaking Down The Barriers

Of the 18 women who have been governor, exactly half of them were elected between 1990 and 2000. Still, several candidates interviewed in 1998 felt that their states simply were not “ready” to elect a woman governor.

One candidate deliberately worked to combat voter doubts about electing a woman by underscoring her prior political experience and strong history of professional accomplishments – information that focus group participants said is particularly important in gaining their confidence. Despite her conscious effort, the candidate was unsuccessful.

“Even though everybody knew my credentials were vastly superior to my opponent’s – a woman can’t do it. It is the feeling – and I’ve had this every time I’ve run for office – that ‘I just can’t picture myself walking into the governor’s office and having to deal with a woman.’ …

“It is when you run for the top office that people get uncomfortable. That’s why I think women running for governor is so important. It is so important to see women in executive positions.“
– Candidate

“I’m honestly convinced that some of it’s the psyche – that women need to see themselves as leaders and men need to see women as leaders … there are a lot of preconceived notions that women have to get beyond, both within them- selves and with the outside audience.”
– Campaign Fundraiser

They knew I could be tough because I had been. But then it was, ‘A woman can’t do it.’ Why, why? Well, you know, I think we’re not ready for a woman,” she said.

Another candidate, however, noted that gender can cut both ways. When voters are looking for “change,” women have an advantage because by definition they counter the status quo.

“It seems to me that there is no shortage of people who would say [my state] is not ready for a woman governor … The flip side is that people who are sick of what goes on all the time [say], we need a change, we need a woman. And they see a female just symbolically as ‘change.’ And that works to one’s advantage for the person who’s going to vote wanting change,” the candidate said.

In 2000, three of the five women who ran for gubernatorial office won, the highest proportion in history. Judy Martz (R-Mont.) and Ruth Ann Minner (D-Del.) are the first women governors of their states. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, is not only the first woman governor of New Hampshire, but she has been reelected twice.

“It may be the kamikaze pilot in me – you just have to keep doing it until somebody breaks down the barriers. I think clearly the attitude is changing,” one gubernatorial candidate added.

For Candidates

  1. Own your ambition. Too few women openly share their desire for higher office. This reluctance to appear “ambitious” slows a politician’s ability to get press, campaign financing, and high-visibility party and legislative assignments. If sup- porters want to say publicly that you should run for governor, let them. Perceived future power creates more power today. “Ambitious” is a quality that creates opportunity and credentials a potential candidacy with donors.
  2. Celebrate accomplished executive women in other industries and disciplines. Understand that voters’ resistance to female candidates for governor is first and foremost one of unfamiliarity with successful executive women in most fields.
  3. Demonstrate executive leadership. Chair a statewide ballot effort or an ally’s statewide campaign. Stand up to an opponent publicly and forcefully. Win or lose, you are taller. Get used to operating in a bigger arena.
  4. Always keep the door open. Think big. Plan big. Do you send press releases about your successes only to media out- lets in your district? Could your current fundraising database support a regional or statewide run? Have you built a base – a statewide network of experts and a regional public following – for your issues? If not, why not?