There is no disputing that women are on the rise in America. Our tremendously successful outgoing secretary of state was a woman who very nearly became president (and might still), 21 women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (a title that was previously reserved for men), and this past election voters sent more women than ever to Congress.
These are all good signs, but we are still not doing enough to get women into leadership positions in public service.
Though women represent over half of the U.S. population, they still only make up 20 percent of the United States Senate and 17.7 percent of the House of Representatives.
For every piece of good news we hear about women assuming new leadership roles, there is more evidence that our current political culture fails to encourage qualified women to run for office.
According to a study released last week by American University titled Girls Just Wanna Not Run, which surveyed 2,100 college students between the ages of 18 to 25, the majority of women believe they are under qualified for political office, regardless of degree or level of political involvement. Of those qualified, only 53 percent of women considered politics a viable option, compared to 66 percent of men. This includes lawyers, business leaders, educators and political activists. Sixty-three percent of women surveyed said they had never even contemplated running for public office.
While the results are disturbing, they explain a lot about why we do not currently have more women in governors mansions.
Twenty-four states have never had a female governor and only five out of fifty governors are women -- four Republicans and one Democrat. It's not a good track record for either side. Since we elected the first female governor (Ella Grasso, a Connecticut Democrat) 40 years ago, at most nine women have held governorships at the same time.
It's not all bad news: last year the people of New Hampshire elected their second female Democratic governor last year in Maggie Hassan (the organization of which I'm currently Chair -- the Democratic Governors Association -- helped in that race). And we have several excellent female candidates who are running for governor in 2013 or 2014, including Senator Barbara Buono in New Jersey.
But the fact remains that both parties can and must do better when it comes to electing qualified women to governorships. That starts with encouraging more young women to seek out positions of public leadership in their communities, as town commissioners, city council members, and mayors. It also means ending the double standard of judging women candidates by likeability, rather than by their qualifications. And it means encouraging more women to run for office at all levels.
I realize these are not novel ideas, but despite some notable progress our aspirations have so far outstripped our achievements.
It is critical that our young women have more female role models in government and in positions of leadership right now, or we risk failing to make progress in the years ahead.
Powerful female leaders such as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, and newer role models such as Governor Hassan, Senator Tammy Baldwin, Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Senator Elizabeth Warren and others are great examples of what women can accomplish. But right now these women have too few female colleagues, and too few opportunities to mentor other women rising in the ranks behind them.
We need more female leaders. It's time we stopped just minding the gender gap and actually closed it.
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin is Chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Follow him on Twitter@GovPeterShumlin.