Looking back on the historic night we had for women, there is—no doubt—a sense of gratitude that for the first time ever, we will have more than 100 women taking seats in Congress and a record number of women elected to state legislatures nationwide. The tide is turning, yet it’s important to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go to have a diversified bench that reflects our population.
When I think about the long road ahead of us, my mind goes to conversations we at She Should Run have with members of our Incubator program, a community of over 21,000 women considering a run for office. We hear that one of their biggest concerns is how the arduous journey of running for office will impact their life. Meaning, the extra scrutiny of running as a female candidate, the always-on lifestyle that one is expected to live, and the inevitable burnout that ensues from working in a stressful, fast-moving environment.
With burnout representing a serious barrier to female leadership, it’s time that we name it and do something about it.
A Different Standard
Women often strive for flawlessness, for a perfect creation, outcome or performance. We experience imposter syndrome in the workplace, and we feel the pressure to have it “all”—a thriving career and a put-together, instagram-worthy family life. Women are held to a different standard by the male-dominated world around them, and often turn that pressure inward. We become hard on ourselves when things aren’t perfect.
For women running for office, campaigns are long, stakes are high, and it’s therefore no surprise that physical and mental fatigue can be overwhelming. Women already have to think carefully about everything they say publicly and how they are being perceived, and a campaign only magnifies those pressures and doubts.
If we want to see more women run for office, how can we help them avoid burnout? After all, do we really want our leaders arriving for their first day of office completely exhausted -- or worse, have qualified candidates discouraged from running because they know the toll of campaigning is too high?
Flipping the Script
The pressure to be perfect or remarkable is something that I saw first-hand when She Should Run set out to create an “unscripted” video series showing an unvarnished look behind-the-scenes at women running for office. It was nearly impossible to get female candidates to agree to it, because they were concerned that it would mean exposing their often messy, chaotic life experiences (a state that I believe we are all too familiar with, regardless of whether you’re running for office).
Yes, the house might be a mess most days, the talking points may be just okay, the kids may not love campaigning with their parent, and the spouse may not lean in for that picture-perfect family photo. Were voters willing to accept complex and unfiltered women as candidates for public office?
In the lead-up to the midterms, we saw some very brave women flipping the script. They began to reveal their true selves in vulnerable ways, demonstrating their values in the reality of daily life. The good news is, this approach seemed to work as demonstrated by all the new women elected. But there is still much more work to be done to define this new playbook for female candidates.
And it’s not just up to female candidates to make the change. It is up to voters as well to help support female candidates, in part by adjusting expectations of what we look for in a public servant. We must be open to female candidates running unpolished, and leaving behind the carefully calculated and not always successful playbook about how candidates should present themselves.
Taking Care of What You Can
Even when we begin to level the playing field, some threat of burnout will always remain in the fast-paced world of politics and government. Finding ways to manage stress and avoid a crash is a critical piece of the puzzle.
When facing burnout, I often think of my mom, who faced her share of adversity. She advocated for grit and determination, but always said to me, “You can’t dwell on what seems challenging and impossible. You have to find ways to take care of what you can.”
I see that determination in many of the women who were recently on the campaign trail. Heads down. Focused on the finish line. Most definitely exhausted. But unwilling to let up. Their energy was not infinite—nobody’s is—but it was focused. The more we can show what is real versus perfect about campaigning, the less pressure we will put on ourselves to strive for the impossible.
A Breath of Fresh Air
The midterm elections offered a breath of fresh air, bringing forth new faces and new perspectives, but there is no roadmap for how these women should navigate it all. That said, I’ve been inspired to see how smart, dedicated women are already forging their own path forward and re-writing the script for public figures.
As my mom said, they’re doing what they can in the face of many challenges. I look forward to seeing the incredible women of the 2018 midterms, and the trailblazers that came before them, show the world how running for office can fit into their lives, rather than overtaking it. We’re in a moment of acceleration, so let’s own who we are—imperfections included—and keep moving forward.
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