I firmly believe that in order to fully achieve change—and to believe in it—we have to see it’s possible. I founded the organization She Should Run in order to help women run for office around the country, at all levels. I want women and girls everywhere to see the examples of women in office at all levels, and to be inspired by those examples to run themselves.
That’s why I’m so excited about the new President and Vice-President Barbies. We partnered with Mattel on this project because we believe that girls and boys everywhere should see that any woman being president isn’t such a strange idea. Representation, even with toys, can go a long way to changing how people think.
The fact that now we have a woman as the presumptive nominee for a major party’s presidential candidate shows significant progress for gender equality in America, but the reality is that 73% of elected officials around the country—from City Council to Congress—are men.
According to the Who Leads Us? campaign, if American candidates and elected officials (from the local level up to Congress) reflected the U.S. population, the breakdown would be 32% white women, 31% white men, 19% women of color and 18% men of color. In reality, the breakdown is 66% white men, 24% white women, 7% men of color, and 3% women of color. Additionally, in our nation’s more than 200-year-old history, only four females have been appointed as Supreme Court justices, and only 14 women have formally run for president.
It’s not that women can’t win. It’s that they aren’t running in the first place. As a society, we aren’t raising girls to consider public office as a viable leadership path in adulthood. According to the Girl Scout Research Institute, only 32% of girls surveyed felt like society encouraged women to pursue careers as politicians. And an American University report found a gender gap in political ambitions. Forty percent of males—compared to 29% of females—reported encouragement to run for office later in life by at least one parent. Many women feel that they are not qualified to run for office despite their experience. And women are more likely to feel that the political arena is biased against women.
We have to tell our daughters and the girls in our lives that elected office is a meaningful, valuable and doable role that should be on their dream list. Sometimes we encourage boys to be risk-takers and tell girls to play it safe. Check your own gender bias—do you talk to your sons and daughters in the same way? I feel that encouraging girls to take risks will go a long way to setting them up to being whatever they want to be, whether that’s a career in public office or any other pursuit.
We also see a lot of sexism in political races—remember the outrage over Hillary Clinton’s purse, or Donald Trump’s ‘woman card’ comments?—and it’s not surprising that a lot of women, especially young women, say, “No thank you,” to politics. And that’s when we as a community can step in and call these issues out when we see them. It’s our role in saying repeatedly that we need their voices in elected office, and we will defend them and support them if they need it.
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Boys’ clubs still exist at all levels of business and government, and until women can see themselves in those groups, we will continue to lag behind. And I believe the first step is visibility for female politicians, whether they’re in office already or on the campaign trail. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And for little girls all across America, the visibility might come from seeing a woman being sworn in as President, or from the simple act of seeing a “President Barbie” on the shelves of the toy store.
Erin Loos Cutaro is the co-founder and CEO of SheShouldRun, a non-partisan organization dedicated to encouraging women to run for public office.