Sarah Brinton: How to get more women to run for office in Utah

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Utah Legislature meets on its final day of the session on March 14, 2019.

As this paper reported last week, Utah was recently ranked the worst state in the nation for women’s equality. According to WalletHub, which issued the rankings, the primary factor attributing to our distant lag behind No. 49 (Idaho) is the lack of women in our elected politics.
Don’t I know it.
As the CEO and founder of a new nonpartisan nonprofit designed to increase the number of women in the Utah Legislature, I have spent many hours talking to Utah women about the possibility of them running for office. Almost uniformly, these women say: “I’d never.” The most qualified, sane, thoughtful, community-oriented Utah women I know resoundingly say, “Nope. Not for me.”
This breaks my heart. And it makes total sense.
Research shows that women win as often as men do when they run, they just don’t run as often. But why don’t Utah women run? Based upon my observations, here are three common reasons that many sane Utah women don’t even considering running for political office — and what you (and I) can do to change it.
1. Utah women are busy. When Utah women think about the possibility of “running for office,” they think that means they would need to become career politicians. What most Utah women don’t know is that Utah is one of the 14 states that has a part-time Legislature.
Because the Legislature only sits from late January through mid March (with a few additional days for interim sessions), every legislator has a full, regular life — careers, hobbies, families. Legislators fit legislative service into their lives.
As former Rep. Becky Edwards told me, the last three weeks of the session are especially busy, running from 7 a.m. to midnight. But, she noted, many jobs have busy seasons. (Even being a mom has busy seasons!) For a lot of women, having an accurate understanding of the workload may make political service seem more doable.
2. Utah women are worried about their families. In particular, they worry about affording child care. They also worry about the criticism and conflict of politics taking a toll on their children’s emotional lives.

These are, of course, real and legitimate concerns. But here are some helpful facts I’ve learned in this work: The salary is $273/session day, which is not a boondoggle, but it’s not nothing (about $18,000 per year — well above the $10,000 per year average income for Utah women doing part-time work, as reported by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research). And, according to our calculations, the average number of children among Utah’s sitting female legislators is 3.7. (Among the men, it’s 4.4.)
Of course, many of these children are grown, but not all. That means there are women (and men) figuring it out!
We invite more legislators and their families to share the details of how they navigate the demands of campaigning and political service — and we encourage constituents to ask themselves whether the demands we make on legislators are appropriate if we want a greater diversity among those in the Capitol.
3. Politics doesn’t look like anything Utah women want in their lives. Utah women are, generally speaking, very good at curating their lives, thoughtfully choosing what to bring into their homes and what they want in their lives. But politics has a reputation for attracting narcissistic self-promoters; it uses harsh, militaristic language (e.g., campaigns, opponents, attacking, defending, rallies, victories); and it perpetuates norms of truly terrible graphic design (so bland! so bad!), which carry the implicit message that contemporary women are not its target demographic.
Most women I know (myself included) don’t wake up each day thinking, “You know what I want in my life? More attacking. And weird drawings of eagles.”
To address these problems, we citizens need to actively invite individual women to run, to brainstorm and use new ways of talking about and representing political service, and to use our best design minds and skills to create political messaging that reflects the world women live in, not the one our grandpas inherited.
I can see a future in which Utah is #1 in the nation in women’s involvement in elected politics. But creating that future will require more Utahans to apply their creativity, thoughtful problem-solving, and adventurousness to identifying and removing the invisible dams keeping women from stepping forward for political service in Utah. Join us in doing that! Our ballots will be better for it.
Sarah Brinton is the CEO/founder of Elect Women Utah, a practicing attorney, and a mom of four.
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