Advice for Women Candidates: Know Your Advantages

Hillary Clinton's interview last week with ABC's Diane Sawyer shone a primetime spotlight on the judgment women leaders face, even if they aren't candidates for office. Hillary answered questions about things that, frankly, men don't have to think about: her age, hyper-scrutiny from voters and the media, becoming a grandmother.

As Hillary put it in the interview, "...When you're in the spotlight as a woman, you know you're being judged constantly. I mean, it is just never-ending."

That scrutiny is particularly poignant when you're a woman running for executive office. Just ask former Governor Sarah Palin, another woman candidate at the top of the ticket in 2008. The commentary about her hair and hemlines was outweighed only by the number of times she was called "hot," as if that somehow had a place in the commentary about her as a vice presidential candidate.

It's clear from these examples that running for office as a woman is different than it is for a man. Why? Because voters expect more from women and afford them different advantages. And even though voters say it is important to have more women in office, it doesn't always mean they will actually vote for women.

"Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women," released earlier this month at the National Press Club, is a look at more than 15 years of research studying these complex attitudes toward female candidates. My nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied every woman's campaign for governor on both sides of the aisle and has conducted real-time polling on voters' views on everything from words that work for women candidates to how to call out an opponent's record.

The findings laid out in "Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women" show that female candidates still face challenges. Those challenges, however, are surmountable -- and they are often countered by strategic advantages.

Here are the must-know advantages women hold:

Women can be 360-degree candidates. It's good for women to use all their life's experiences to run for office. The findings show that a woman can be policy minded and still talk about kids. Women candidates being themselves has much more power than we realized.

Going negative -- or contrasting with an opponent -- can work for women. It works for a woman candidate to represent herself in her ad, confidently speaking for herself and her positions. Humor can work for a woman, contrary to conventional wisdom. It adds an element of the unexpected, which helps voters remember the ad.

Voters often put women on a political pedestal. Voters give women an advantage on honesty and ethics. Women can maintain that advantage by showcasing integrity, transparency, and consistency. A word of caution, though: this advantage can be dramatically reversed if voters perceive that a woman candidate has been dishonest or acted unethically. A woman candidate who falls off her political pedestal pays a higher price than men in the loss of voter esteem.

Why is women's political equality important? With more women at the table, we have more robust, inclusive dialogue about issues that matter not only to women but to families and all Americans.

With more women in office, issues like economic opportunity, access to health care, quality education, reproductive health, and sexual assault get the attention they deserve. To voters, women are the ones likely to bring people together to get results and make government work.

That's why we need more women in elected office. These key strategies can help them unlock the door.

Read "Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women" at and follow the conversation on Twitter with #herofficekeys.