Barriers to women running for office in local elections throughout Illinois has emerged as one of the issues facing women who want to be involved in politics and public service.
The issue surfaced during a number of listening sessions held around the state by the Anti-Harassment, Equality and Access Panel formed earlier this year by House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan.
Although created by Madigan and composed of Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake and Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana, all Democrats, the panel is non-partisan.
The panel came to Springfield Monday to get input from Springfield-area women about their experiences being involved in politics and public service and steps that can be taken to improve the experience. Springfield is the fifth location for the listening sessions and two more are planned.
“We’re trying to develop policies and guidelines for political parties that are more inclusive for women and that will remove barriers so that more women will feel comfortable working in politics and running for office,” Bush said.
“We started out really focused on the whole issue of sexual harassment,” Mendoza said. “In terms of the panel’s work itself and the people who come to talk to us, it’s amazing how more of the conversation has shifted to the barriers to entry to politics. The fact that there are not enough women in politics seems to be an issue that keeps coming up over and over again.”
In the Illinois General Assembly, 35 percent of lawmakers are women. That puts Illinois sixth among states with the largest percentage of female lawmakers. Bush said it isn’t enough.
“Our representation should look like us,” she said. “We’re 51 percent of the population.”
The listening sessions are not open to the public or the news media to encourage women to attend and speak openly about their experiences. What many talked about, Bush said, are “inherent cultural biases” about women running for office, including for local offices.
Bush said attitudes include “if you’re a mom, maybe you shouldn’t be running for office. No one looks at a man and says you have children, maybe you shouldn’t run for office.”
Consequently, Bush said, women often don’t feel they’re getting support from local party officials.
Mendoza, who has a 5-year-old son, said she knows first-hand the stress of running in a campaign with a young child at home. She said an idea to explore is allowing campaign funds to be used for child care services which could allow more women to run.
Mendoza said the panel’s recommendations would apply to both Democrats and Republicans.
“We’re not trying to force anything on any party,” she said. “This is about women and helping women. Parties should be thinking women, women, women.”
The panel has heard about workplace harassment also and will address that in recommendations it plans to issue next month.
“We’re looking to make recommendations for policies on sexual harassment,” Bush said. “We’ll be making recommendations for providing a safe workplace for women.”
Part of that will include making sure that policies are in place and remedies are clear if harassment occurs, she said.
“I don’t believe there’s a woman alive who hasn’t dealt with some kind of sex harassment or cultural bias against women,” Bush said.
Bush said the recommendations may also call for “bystander training.”
“So many women said the same thing. They said they don’t believe that people know what to do if they witness some kind of sexual harassment or bullying,” Bush said. “They don’t know what to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as teaching someone to say, ‘Hey, that’s just not OK.’”
Both Bush and Mendoza said they don’t expect the recommendations to be issued next month to be the last word. They said they are talking now about how to keep attention focused on the subjects after the commission issues its recommendations.
“We don’t want to say here’s the report and call it a day,” Mendoza said. “This issue is going to be around and we’ve got to continue to be on top of it. We’re talking about our next steps, but we definitely don’t think it should be dissolving the panel. We’re definitely not going away, I’ll tell you that.”
Contact Doug Finke: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr.