Toni Foulkes likes to say a woman is like a teabag.
Put her in hot water and see how strong she gets. Foulkes is one of the 15 women serving on the 50-member Chicago City Council. Women make up more than 51 percent of the Chicago population, according to census data, and yet they are only 30 percent of city council members, an 8 percent decrease from last session.
And while Foulkes, who represents the 15th ward, would like to see more diversity of thought, she said she’s not worried about women losing their voice.
“You have some tough women there, they speak their mind,” Foulkes said. “I’ve raised so much hell in the past, that I don’t have to scream as much, but I will state my opinion,” adding that her feminine touch has been an asset as alderman, not a disadvantage.
“I go with the flow,” Foulkes said. “When I need to be a little tougher I do, when I need to be a little softer I do, and it seems to work out very well for me, but I try to be a lady at all times.”
But many women still shy away from running for political office.
The Brookings Institution has a theory about why women are significantly under-represented in political institutions across the board-they don’t run for office. Researchers determined that more men simply have greater political ambition than women based on a survey of thousands of lawyers, business leaders, educators and activists.
Of the professionals surveyed, 42 percent of women said they had considered running for public office compared to 56 percent of men, according to Brookings’ 2008 study, “Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?”
But of those with political ambitions, city council member is the only position men and women are equally likely to aspire to, at 42 percent. Women are six percent more likely to seek a school board position and men are three percent more likely to run for mayor, according to Brookings.
In the 1980s, women were becoming political leaders at a gradual rate, and by the 1990s, they were surging. But recent election cycles, according to the Brookings report, shows that the number of women running for office is reaching a plateau at the city, state and national levels. But women have just as much of a chance at winning as their male competition, the Brookings report found.
Women perform just as well in terms of fundraising and votes, which means that women just simply aren’t running.
When Alderman Margaret Laurino from the 39th Ward ran in 1995 after being appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to fill her father’s position, all her opponents were male. But she said her gender was an advantage because she was able to pursue the female vote.
The harder task? Fundraising.
Over the years, Laurino has found that fundraising doesn’t get any easier or any more natural.
“It’s the worst part of my job. There must be people who love it, but me, I don’t care for it,” she said. “But it’s a very important part. You have to be really gutsy in order to raise money. You have to be sophisticated.”
Generally, she will raise money from organizations and local businesses, she said, rather than asking “Joe down the street” to send her a check. But, she adds, raising money is important, and it’s probably a reason more women don’t get involved in politics.
“We [women] haven’t been the greatest fundraisers. Why is that?” Laurino asked. “I don’t know. We don’t have the guts to get on the phone and say ‘You forgot to put a zero on the check’?”
Dorian Denburg, president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, said that women offer unique perspectives in problem-solving, and government is at a disservice when few women run.
“It’s proven that when women are involved, diverse results are achieved,” Denburg said. Adding more women to the dialogue decreases “group-think,” she added; but not all women are the same.
“I don’t think one woman speaks for all women,” Denburg said, “which is probably proof that you need more than one.”
Just joining the dialogue can be difficult, according to Laurino. “Believe me, there’s times when I know I wasn’t at the table because I was a woman.”
Foulkes, who often works with older pastors who may think less of women in leadership positions, said she sometimes allows her male chief of staff to step forward. She knows when she needs to play a “role” around older men. Foulkes even admits to pouting at commissioners occasionally as part of her female charm.
But playing into the occasional gender stereotype doesn’t stop her from getting her work done. When the governor allocated money for an anti-violence youth initiative, Foulkes said she was the only woman at the table. But being an alderman is not a 9 to 5 job, and the long hours away from family can be off-putting for some women.
Campaigning, a crucial and time-consuming part of a politician’s job, is likely turning many women off from running. The Brookings research found that 33 percent of women saw spending less time with their family as a deterrent from seeking office – 8 percent higher than men. And privacy was more important to women too. Almost 9 percent higher than men, 46 percent of women saw their loss of privacy as a reason not to run.
The men and women surveyed by Brookings had the same income, jobs, political interest, age and education, and yet women were less likely to receive suggestions to run by both political activists and people in their personal lives such as friends, spouses and family.
Only 33 percent of women were told by their spouse that they should consider running for office, compared to 39 percent of men. Only 64 percent of women were told by friends to seek office compared to 71 percent of men, according to Brookings.
And although she too had the support of her family, Laurino said even her mother double-checked and asked “Are you sure you want to be in this business?”
Denburg explained that from day one, girls are not taught to see themselves as powerful. “People have to see their potential and we need to put the seed in their head,” she said.