Women's Leadership: Solving the Chicken and Egg Debate

Sheryl Sandberg is right -- we don't have enough women leaders.

And she's right that it's a classic chicken and egg problem. Are women held back by external roadblocks like unequal pay and workplace sexism? Or are they opting out because of internal roadblocks like the assumption they're not qualified, and concern for family?

That's the debate that's raging -- and it's missing a critical angle. No matter what the original cause of the problem is, getting more women to run for political office is a big part of the solution. That's why for the past 28 years, EMILY's List has asked women to "lean in" and run.

We solve the external roadblocks by recruiting, training, and supporting women candidates up and down the ballot. Then, from office, they fight for policies that benefit women and families, helping even more women "lean in." And when women and girls see other women lead -- and lead successfully -- that tackles the internal roadblocks too, especially as the number of women leaders grows.

EMILY's List started when a group of 25 women, with rolodexes in hand, met in a basement to create a network for electing progressive women candidates. Since then, our membership has grown to more than two million women and men across the country. There's strength in numbers -- with their help we've elected 10 governors, 19 senators, 100 congresswomen, and over 500 women to state and local office. And in 2012 I was so proud when we sent an historic number of women to Congress, including the first female combat veterans, first openly gay senator, and three new congresswomen under the age of 40.

These EMILY's List leaders battle the external roadblocks, making it possible for women to "lean in" every day. In 1972, Representative Patsy Mink was a key player in passing Title IX, which prevents gender discrimination in education. Since then, the number of high school girls in sports increased from 7.4 percent to 41.4 percent. And the best part? A recent study by Jennifer Lawless at the Women & Politics Institute showed that women who are involved in sports are more likely to run for office -- so today's point guard or goalie has a better chance of becoming tomorrow's governor or senator.

EMILY's List women change the law by passing violence prevention legislation, fighting for equal pay, protecting education funding, and championing reproductive healthcare. But they also change the conversation. Right now there are a record number of women serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Senators Hagan, Hirono, Gillibrand, McCaskill, and Shaheen. And because of them, the Senate just held its first hearing on sexual assault in the military in almost a decade.

Since 1985, EMILY's List has helped the number of women in Congress increase from under 5 percent to 18 percent, and the resulting progress is undeniable. But we still have a long way to go before all women have access to the things that help them "lean in," like education, healthcare, and equal pay. Can you imagine how much more we could do if our voices were heard equally, and our numbers were at 50 percent?

So we need to get more women to run, even though there are still roadblocks that stop them. For starters, lots of women think they just don't have what it takes. According to Lawless, a survey of several thousand potential political candidates revealed that the men were about 60 percent more likely to think they were "very qualified" to run for political office, even though they had similar credentials.

And lots of young women aren't being taught to think of politics as an option. Jennifer Lawless' study showed that young women are less likely to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path, and are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office from anyone.

This is where our strength in numbers matters even more -- when more women are in the halls of Congress, women and girls can see for themselves that "leaning in" and becoming a leader is not only something that's possible, but something that's positive.

When I was in high school, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana came to speak. Here was a woman who had been elected to statewide office, and had grown up just 30 miles away from me. I had even played her niece in basketball!

Seeing her in a leadership role showed me that women like me could get involved in politics -- and succeed. And the same goes for women who see Senator Kirsten Gillibrand raise two young kids while in office, or watch Nancy Pelosi hold the Speaker's gavel -- they'll know that leadership is an option for them too.

So let's get even more women to "lean in" and run. Let's elect mayors, senators, governors, and yes, presidents, who will fight for our families, and create a nation where women's leadership isn't the exception, it's the rule.