According to reports from Forbes, women make up more than half of the U.S. population, and control or influence 85 percent of consumer spending. The Federal Reserve reports that women control more than 60 percent of all personal wealth in the U.S., and approximately 40 percent now earn more than their husbands.
Yet, when it comes to political offices, women continue to be underrepresented. Women only make up 24 percent of the U.S. Senate and 27 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives. But things are starting to change.
What if you want to be part of that change? Would you know how to start? Chatham University’s innovative program Ready to Run™ Pennsylvania provides nonpartisan political training to encourage women to run for government leadership positions. Affiliated with the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP), the organization’s mission is clear: “To increase women’s influence and leadership in public life in Pennsylvania and improve the quality of women’s lives by providing them with educational and training opportunities in politics and public policy.”
Dana Brown, Ph.D., serves as PCWP’s executive director and is an assistant professor of political science. In her decade-long tenure, she’s noticed progress. “Looking back at the Pennsylvania Legislature, the percentage of women serving 10 years ago was maybe 19 percent,” said Brown. “Now it’s 29 percent female, which is some progress.”
As a nonpartisan program, Ready to Run™ Pennsylvania provides a strictly educational space. “We’re here to educate and train women who feel the call to serve,” said Dr. Brown, adding that although the program is predominately women, nonbinary gender folks are welcome, too.
In pre-pandemic days, an in-person program was held each year in late January to early February to take advantage of the small window of opportunity before candidates announced and filed petitions. The day-long program targets women considering or deciding to run for political office and provides training and mentoring by campaign professionals, political women, and officeholders. Since the pandemic, the program reverted to a virtual format but hopes to return to the in-person meeting next year.
“The networking connections made at in-person events further enhance the benefits of the training,” explained Dr. Brown. “One young woman who wanted to run for state representative happened to be sitting at a table with a women whose focus was fundraising. Despite being from opposite political parties, they worked together on a successful campaign.”
This one-stop shop for demystifying the campaign process boasts some impressive success stories, including U.S. Representative Chrissy Houlahan. An Air Force veteran, engineer, entrepreneur, and educator, Houlahan is continuing her career of service as the first woman ever to represent Pennsylvania’s 6th District in Congress.
Not everyone feels the call to serve on the state or national level, and that’s fine because there are local needs as well, including local school boards. A proud 1990 North Allegheny graduate, Dr. Vidya Szymkowiak resides in Franklin Park with her husband and two sons, where she is a practicing internal medicine/primary care physician as well as a member of the North Allegheny School Board.
“I’ve been a pretty committed volunteer for many years, but this is the first time I ever sought an elected position,” she explained. “My sons were doing well, achieving their academic goals and involved in various activities, but through the pandemic, you start to realize it’s not something you can take for granted. We need people actively involved in making sure that the schools are meeting our kids’ needs.”
With her boys becoming more independent, the timing was perfect for her to run. “I didn’t come into it with a huge amount of knowledge about what was involved, but the process was really a lot of fun,” said Dr. Szymkowiak. “It’s a nonpartisan office, so you get a lot of support from local political organizations. Both parties take you under their wings and at least guide you through the process and offer support for fundraising. But you don’t necessarily have to do everything through local political organizations.”
Despite her lack of experience on the campaign trail, campaigning was a positive experience. “A big part of what I did in campaigning was to go around our local neighborhoods and talk to voters, parents and community members who may or may not have kids in the schools but who are taxpaying citizens,” she said. “I needed to hear their concerns.”
The school board is comprised of nine people who serve for four years. Turnover is on a two-year cycle. In the last election there were four available spots, and next year there will be five.
“The timing was perfect for me to consider running,” said Dr. Szymkowiak. “I was close enough to the issues that they have meaning to me, but not so involved that my decisions are based on what my family wants or needs. By the time many of these things take effect, my kids will have moved on to the next thing.”
She encourages others to consider running in the future. “It has been an enjoyable experience for me, and I really do hope community members will consider it moving forward,” she said. “It seems a little intimidating because it’s an elected office, but it really wasn’t. We don’t think anything about signing up to do all the other volunteer things, and this requires about the same amount of time and commitment.”