MIRS article (Reprinted with permission)

(Reprinted with permission from MIRS. Originally published 7/31/13)

Do Gender-Based Questions Chase Away Female Candidates?

“But who will take care of your children?” 

It’s one of several questions only female candidates typically face when they run for office—a vestige of days when women were expected to be running a family, not a campaign. 

But such questions could be discouraging women from pursuing careers in politics, according to Shannon GARRETT, founder of SMG Strategies, a political consulting firm. 

The potential of being asked to drag your children and parenting techniques into the limelight probably doesn’t help numbers like those reported earlier this year—Michigan currently has the lowest number of female legislators since 1992 (See “2013 Sees Fewest Female Legislators Since ‘92,” 1/10/13). 

“I think it probably discourages candidates in a far greater number than the question actually comes,” said Garrett of the female-targeted questions. 

She said that it’s part of the mythology about running as a woman. Potential candidates see how female candidates get treated in the news at the federal level and may think twice about the kind of criticism they will face. 

JoAnn WASSENAAR, associate director of Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Women’s Center, oversees Ready To Run, an offshoot of a national program that encourages more women to run for elective office. 

She said going back to the 2008 presidential campaign, women saw Sarah PALIN, then a vice-presidential candidate, asked about everything from how she’d manage her children to the clothes she wore. 

“Those are things that simply would not be asked of a male candidate,” said Wassenaar. 

MIRS on Tuesday asked Ingham County Clerk and former Rep. Barb BYRUM, who is considered a possible contender for Lieutenant Governor on the Democratic ticket, if her children wanted her at home (See “Like Mother, Like Daughter For Byrum,” 7/30/13). The question and her answer originally appeared in Tuesday’s edition, but after an in-house editorial discussion on the topic Wednesday, both were taken out as being insensitive. 

Byrum said it’s the first time she has gotten such a question, which seemingly suggested she consider not pursuing a position because of her young family. 

“I’ve been an elected official for longer than I’ve been a parent. I have and do both,” she said. 

But as a female candidate, she’s faced other sex-based slights. 

In 2006, her Republican opponent continually referred to her as “Barbie.” He also brought up her younger age, and the fact that she hadn’t taken her husband’s last name, she said. 

“They made an issue that I go by, my name is Barb Byrum. So he made an issue of that too, and I would presume that wouldn’t hold true for a male candidate,” she said. 

Asked if she was concerned about experiences like that dissuading other women from running for office, she said, “Absolutely, I am.” 

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen WHITMER (D-East Lansing), too, said that women looking at campaigns may decide they don’t want to be a part of them. 

“I think that the nature of campaigns today and how personal and ugly they tend to get really discourages a lot of people from running for office. But in particular I think it has a disproportionate impact on women,” said Whitmer. 

She’s gotten comments on her appearance, and people questioning her experience where they wouldn’t have questioned a male’s. 

When she bowed out of the gubernatorial campaign, it was in consideration of her family. But she strives to be a strong female role model for her children. 

“I’ve declined to wage a gubernatorial campaign on top of my current job, and my most important job, which is being a mom because I’ve got kids who are 9 and 10 right now. But that being said, I think it’s important for all kids to see a strong mother role model. And that’s part of what encourages me to go to work every single day,” said Whitmer. 

When she goes to speaking engagements around the state, Whitmer said she educates people on the declining number of women in the upper chamber. 

“When I came over to the Senate, we were at a historic high and we all high-fived each other and we hit the magic number of 12 women,” said Whitmer. 

Now the chamber is down to four women. 

“I used to go to budget meetings with the high-level people, and it was me and Diane BYRUM, my House Democratic leader, and Shirley JOHNSON who was the Republican chair of appropriations in the Senate, and Jennifer GRANHOLM. Now when those meetings happen, really when the quadrant meets, it’s just me,” said Whitmer. 

When it comes to running a campaign, Garrett knows female-specific questions come up and coaches her candidates on how to handle them. She tells people to turn the question around, and ask themselves if the same question posed to a man would sound ridiculous. 

“If it seems ridiculous that they would ask it of a male candidate, it’s probably sexist,” said Garrett. 

Wassenaar said such training is included in the Ready To Run program, as well. In fact, they use Garrett as a consultant. 

“We incorporate that part into Ready To Run, training women who are running for public office on how to respond or deflect questions to them that are of that nature . . . that’s an additional layer of training that you do need to provide for women around what kind of things are going to be coming your way,” said Wassenaar. 

Ready To Run is currently based at GVSU, but hopes to reach out to other universities so other parts of the state can be made more accessible for female candidates. 

Bobbie WALTON of Michigan National Organization for Women (NOW) recalled a time when questions about child-rearing and the like were commonplace for female political candidates. 

“I thought those days were over, but obviously they’re not,” she said. 

She pointed out that the implication that women in demanding jobs couldn’t raise children isn’t unique to politics. 

“I do think the issue about who takes care of the children, and are you neglecting them, it applies to many professions, running for office is just one of them,” said Walton. 

The questions still come up because women running is still somewhat of a rarity, said Garrett. 

“It’s not going to change until we have masses of women running and it’s normal for a woman to run for office,” she said.