Sandy • If you want to run for public office, don't let the status quo dictate your dreams, don't let anyone put you in a box and don't expect an invitation.
Useful words, no doubt, for anyone with political aspirations. But they are especially relevant and timely for women, said speakers at an all-day boot camp Saturday for budding female political leaders.
Women have long been underrepresented in leadership, "but we're starting to lose ground," said Katie Groke-Ellis, regional director of the White House Project, a nonpartisan group devoted to reversing that trend and bringing a woman to the Oval Office.
The U.S. ranks 70th in the world for representation in female politics behind Greece, Venezuela and Kazakhstan, said Groke-Ellis, citing data from Rutgers University's Center for American Women in Politics.
Women hold 90 of 535 seats in Congress, about 17 percent. And while that's an improvement from 3 percent in 1979, it doesn't come close to reflecting the population at large. And at the state level, ranks of elected women are shrinking.
"Even more depressing is Utah," said Groke-Ellis, who noted that the state ranks 43rd in the country for females in the Legislature and state offices. "That's not the norm for Western states, which have always been ahead of the game in terms of female leadership."
Why that's so was the topic du jour at the seminar, a series of panel discussions followed by training on how to raise money, campaign and work with the media.
The event, sponsored by the Real Women Coalition, was the first of what organizers hope will become an annual affair.
"We were hoping for 40 attendees, but as of last night had 278 registrations," said Deedee Corradini, former Salt Lake City mayor. "Obviously there's a big thirst out there."
She urged everyone in attendance to think about running for office, saying a critical mass of capable and willing candidates is what's needed to bring parity to the political system. One of the sponsors, the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, offered to provide campaign managers to anyone starting out.
Reasons that women don't run now are varied and entrenched.
Women are quicker to discount themselves as unqualified. They earn less on the dollar than men and often don't have access to movers and shakers with the clout and money to support campaigns.
"They aren't asked to run. They aren't on the short-list when there's an opening," said Groke-Ellis.
Women are also busy managing families, a factor especially pronounced in conservative Utah, the youngest state with the highest birth rate.
It's that neighborhood-level perspective that makes them well-suited for office, said Provo City Council member Cynthia Dayton, noting how women tend to be inspired not by the office or title, but by a problem that needs fixing.
For many, though, it's easier to leave politics to someone else, she said. "I hear all the time that women should be home caring for kids."
Such stereotypes are perpetuated by the media, said Corradini, who joked, "We must be making some progress, because people are now talking about Mitt Romney's hair."
She urged women to start by getting on boards and commissions, where they'll be able to network with power brokers.
But don't stop there, said Mia Love, Saratoga Springs mayor and a candidate for Utah's 4th Congressional District seat.
Women are needed in top posts, now more than ever, because they bring a fresh, compassionate perspective at a time when partisan bickering and disenchantment with politics are at a high, said Love.
"Whenever someone asks my husband what he thinks about education and health care, he says, 'Ask my wife, she's the one who sends the kids to school and makes the doctor appointments.' We have something to offer," Love added.
Advice from the trenches
"Find a confidante you trust to give you honest feedback and who will serve you well." – Jackie Biskupski, former Utah lawmaker
"Play act with friends and get used to looking people in the eye and asking them for money." – Karen Shepherd, former U.S. congresswoman
"The timing has to be right for you. You need the support of your family. When they're behind you, and the time is right, leap and don't look back." – Louenda Downs, Davis County commissioner
"Find something you're passionate about. ... I like to say of my Colbert moment that I looked around for an alternative and realized it was me." – Lisa Kirchenheiter, Park City Board of Education member