I was first introduced to WomenElect when I sat in the wings and watched Amber Small give her presentation at the 2012 TEDXBuffaloWomen conference last December. I knew then that women made up a smaller percentage of the total members of Congress, but I didn't know how disproportionate it actually was.
And while there was a small gain from the last Congress - five more seats held by women in the 113th - the percentage of representation is disproportionately low.
By the numbers, there are 78 Congresswomen of the 435 total members of Congress, and 20 women Senators. A total of 18.3 percent of our current Congress is women. When elections are won or lost by three to five percent, 18.3 percent is nothing to sneeze at. It's a formidable voting bloc.
The trouble is: that doesn't even begin to offer the appropriate representation for women's actual percentage of the population. In her presentation, Small says the last census lists 156,964,212 women in the country. That's 51 percent. And yet when it comes to representation in our federal government, only 18.3 percent of the seats are held by women.
Enter WomenElect. Founded in 2009, it is the brainchild of Diana Cihak of Western New York and Virginia Davies of Manhattan. WomenElect doesn't endorse candidates or work on campaigns. It doesn't recruit candidates and it's not a PAC to raise money for women candidates. Instead, it's a year-long leadership development program that provides women the tools to assess their strengths, to build their networks and to gain some name recognition. All of this helps these women assess which offices they might be best suited for and allows for them to build a strong foundation before they head out on the campaign trail. When they finally decide to step into the campaign arena, their completion of the WomenElect program equips them with knowledge and confidence.
"The WomenElect program is unique in that the strength of the program lies in the women taking time after the program to build their personal foundation and networks so that they can successfully compete for office," co-founder Diana Clark said. "We anticipate that most of the WomenElect graduates will not start their campaigns until six months to two years after completion of the program."
Another strength of the WomenElect program is the cost. Many leadership development programs are pricey. According to the program's website, "It is extremely important that no women be denied the opportunity to serve her community in public service due to financial constraints". In keeping with that spirit, the tuition for the WomenElect program is a very low $150. Within the program, participants will also learn the keys to raising money by organizing their own fundraiser during the program.
The big question is, what is currently stopping women from running for office? Armed with multiple video clips, Amber Small illustrates a host of different reasons why strong , sensible, and qualified women would not want to subject themselves to on the campaign trail. After showing clip after clip from cable news, late night TV and other venues, Small says "How many potentially amazing leaders have we lost because of that?" I have absolutely no doubt that is true. Particularly now, when campaigning has generally become the sleaziest, most demeaning practice, only loosely based on the truth.
After watching Amber Small's TEDx presentation and talking to Diana Cihak about the program for this article, I have been hyper aware of the way that our government officials deal with each other. I am both saddened and sickened by the lack of respect and common courtesy with which opposing parties deal with each other. I am angered by it, and have come to believe that it springs from the "boys will be boys" attitude that allows for the rudeness and the demeaning behaviors.
As I thought through how I was going to approach this piece I was reminded of a song lyric from an old Jimmy Buffett song "Only Time Will Tell". He says "Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men, who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend". I, for one, certainly hope not. Strong, intelligent women bring something to the table men do not, and if they come in greater numbers perhaps we can change the tone of government and allow for more government with a less competitive atmosphere about every....single...thing.
So far, WomenElect is succeeding. "The pilot class was completed in November 2012 and those women have gone on to positions of leadership in government, the non-profit sector and private industry," Cihak said. "They are becoming politically active and building their financial background and support networks and increasing their visibility and name recognition as they evaluate the offices they will pursue in the coming election cycles."
That's exciting. For more information, visit the WomenElect website or watch Amber Small's TEDxBuffaloWomen presentation.