Political Leadership Matters: Lessons for All Women of Color

According to think tank the Center for American Progress, women of color today constitute 18 percent of the total U.S. population and 36.3 percent of the female U.S. population. However, they only represent 4.5 percent of the total members of Congress and 3.4 percent of statewide elected executives.

This is not a significant increase from 1999, when 1.7 percent of Congress and 1.6 percent of statewide elected leaders were women of color. Among the nation’s 100 largest cities, there are only two minority mayors. The first two women of color to serve as governors were elected in 2010. There are no women of color in the U.S. Senate and only one has been appointed during its history.

Needless to say, women of color still face significant challenges when it comes to gaining inroads into political leadership, and as their population grows, their underrepresentation poses an even greater threat. According to the Center for American Progress, not only does this lack of presence undermine the economic job prospects of these women, but it also gives them little say in the national discourse on issues that often directly affect them.

Equal opportunity policies relating to health care, women’s rights, jobs and other economic issues are more likely to benefit women of color, yet they lack sufficient influence on these policies due to their limited political representation. Since this lack of influence has implications for women of color at large, it is in the best interests of all women of color to get involved directly or indirectly in promoting their demographic for political leadership.

How can women get involved in ways that initiate change? Understanding what the barriers are for their inclusion in politics and how to address each one are critical to making tangible progress.

Create a strong support network. According the Center for American Women and Politics, women of color face less encouragement and, in some instances, more discouragement during their candidacy. This suggests that creating strong support networks, both within and outside political parties, is critical. Helping women of color make headway means participating in advocacy organizations, like the Women of Color Network, to encourage and support such women in pioneering new leadership roles.

Leverage broad voter appeal. When running for office, women of color are often considered “doubly disadvantaged” because they face both race and gender stereotypes. While these stereotypes should be addressed via campaign strategy, women of color can also use the race and gender card to their advantage. Organizations like the Women’s Campaign School train candidates on strategies to address the unique cultural challenges and stereotypes that they may face. By demonstrating how women of color can relate to a broader range of voters, they can tap into voting communities across race and gender lines to gain support. This is even more effective when other women of color — especially corporate and community leaders — stand together to openly support a candidate and leverage their influence to increase a candidate’s voter appeal.

Combat traditional party recruitment. According to political advocacy group Political Parity, when it comes to candidate recruitment, party leaders often stick to the white male demographic because it is the safe choice. Women of color have to work harder to prove themselves and face greater hurdles when establishing their credibility during recruitment. Groups such as the Center for American Women and Politics are developing programs to address a range of issues from creating networking and mentorship opportunities to identifying strategies to combat the challenges of traditional recruitment for women of color. The community can get involved by helping these programs obtain the visibility and support they need to make a bigger impact.

Become better connected to finance networks. Often women of color find it more difficult to raise campaign funding. In light of this, groups such as Emerge America and the Center for Progressive Leadership are spearheading initiatives to help women of color build financial networks to increase their access to top campaign contributors. In addition, it is critical for women of color to support each other by leveraging their own corporate and community networks to support funding of political candidates who are women of color.

Promote inclusion via legislature dynamics. Interpersonal dynamics within legislatures can determine the amount of influence an elected official has and his or her level of access to formal and informal advancement opportunities. Often these dynamics work against women of color due to race and gender stereotypes. To ensure that women of color in office are afforded the same opportunities as their colleagues, legislatures should equip employees with skills to avoid prejudice and promote workplace inclusion. Organizations can get involved by lobbying for programs to oversee equal participation in legislatures.

Sejal Patel is an advocate and member of the global management team at Abbott Laboratories. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.