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leadership

International Women’s Day: Why we need more women lawyers running for office

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

Globally, less than 1-in-4 lawmakers are women, showing an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed, and how equality is created in societies.

Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women, according to Global Citizen; and only 25% of the 500,000 elected positions nationwide in the U.S. are currently held by women, according to The Huffington Post.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we look at this phenomenon and how more women, especially legal professionals, could run for office and shift this balance of power to a more equitable equation.

Erin Loos Cutraro, CEO of She Should Run, says we need more women in elected office. “Gender parity leads to better results because women govern differently,” Cutraro says. “Studies show that having more women in leadership leads to increased collaboration, improved financial stability, and more stable negotiations — all imperative elements of success in politics.”

More women being elected to office means more women making laws and policies, such as in the areas of childcare and healthcare, that can help advance women overall and give them the same opportunities to succeed, says Kelli Dunaway, councilwoman on the St. Louis County Council who was elected in the Summer of 2019. Dunaway also is Director of Learning & Development at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP).

Kenya Pierre, Partner and General Counsel at Yardstick Management, ran for local school board in an Atlanta suburb a few years ago, but lost the race by a small margin. As a candidate, she notes, “Diversity begets diversity.”

Many people fail to think about issues that they’ve never experienced whether directly or indirectly, Pierre explains, adding that and once they stand in the shoes of another’s experience, they see a different perspective that can lead to a variety of different approaches. “If we want better policies that are inclusive of the demographics that are present within our United States of America, then we need people who live and reflect the ideals and belies those demographics to be a part of the policy-making and legislation that we, as a society, are to follow,” she adds. “If we want more robust ideas and better problem-solving results, we need a more diverse think-tank filled with ideas that have range.”

International Women's Day
Erin Loos Cutraro of She Should Run

Moreover, Pierre highlights the value of having individuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and national origins. “A room full of people with varying ideas, diverse backgrounds and a range of thoughts are likely to have a more meaningful discussion that leads to a more progressive forward-thinking policy,” she says. “The goal is not about making sure everyone is necessarily pleased with ‘their way’, but that everyone is heard and considered for a more inclusive policy.”

Why women lawyers

BCLP’s Dunaway, who has twice run for elected office — once for her current position and previously for Congress in 2018 — strongly agrees that more women need to run and a JD and a career in the legal industry positions women candidates effectively in many ways. “We are smart, we are business savvy, and we know people,” Dunaway states, adding that graduating law school gave her excellent critical thinking skills that made her a better candidate. “Those skills helped me to analyze how the advice I was receiving was going to work for me.”

Further, these critical thinking skills enables women to transition between the task at hand and bigger picture concerns. In situations where there are so many moving pieces, for example, these skills give women the ability to step back and see everything moving and place their focus on where it’s needed.

A law degree also helps women get elected, Yardstick’s Pierre explains, because constituents know that lawyers understand laws. “I believe being a lawyer helped me in my candidacy because it spoke to my credibility and knowledge in the how legislation and policy work,” she says, adding that the most important ingredient to succeed as a candidate is a relentless commitment to representing the best interest of the people and acting on those interests.

International Women's Day
Kelli Dunaway, councilwoman on the St. Louis County Council

Driving change in equity

As a member of city council, Dunaway says she enjoys making positive change in areas like the environment and equity, despite observing systemic bias much of the time. Indeed, Dunaway received a lot of sexist advice during her campaigns, such as advice on what she should and shouldn’t wear and how she should and should not wear her hair or paint her nails, even as male candidates wore jeans and blazers to everything.

She committed to doing things differently during her second campaign by taking full ownership of her campaign. “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me and this campaign had to be at the level of courage and integrity that I wanted to bring into my life as a public servant,” Dunaway explains. For example, when she was asked who was taking care of her children, she would respond with, “How did my male opponent answer that question?”

Dunaway’s first accomplishment after getting elected was shaking up the police commission in St. Louis County after a gay police office won a $20 million discrimination suit after being denied career advancement opportunities. Recently, she and several fellow council members were successful in changing the representation of the county police commission from an all-white, five-person board to a more diverse board that included two women of color.

The money equation

Fundraising and the fear of hearing No when asking people for money is a major obstacle in getting more women to run for office. However, women have to get over that, Dunaway says, adding that the way to get over anxiety about asking people to donate to your campaign is to just do it. Dunaway practices before every phone call; and her fundraising coach tells her who she is calling and who the prospective donor has backed in the past, and then they do a role-play on how she is going to ask for money.

If some women lawyers may not be up for a running for office, there are other ways they can contribute. For example, give money to the candidates you want to see elected. Too often, women do not donate money the way men do. “Women must be willing to invest their money in advancing other women rather than getting another pair of Jimmy Choos,” says Dunaway. “I don’t know how to say this in a nice way or a comforting way — it is a fact.”

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