Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, October 09 2012
Snapshot: Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, President & CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund & She Should Run
Did you know that women hold only 17 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress, that state legislatures are comprised of only 23 percent women and only 6 out of 50 states have a female governor? There are many more statistics like these about women in politics, or the lack thereof, and Sam Bennett, president & CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund (WCF) & She Should Run can rattle off a bunch. Throughout her own experiences running for mayor of her beloved hometown of Allentown, Pa. and later for U.S. Congress, Bennett understands firsthand the uphill battle many women have, and she’s made it her goal to knock down many of the barriers that women face. Here’s a look at her story, her mission, why women are needed in office and her outlook for women running in the upcoming election.
Womenetics: Why is it important to have more women in office?
Siobhan Bennett: This is not a fairness issue at all; it’s a global competitiveness issue. Research shows that women risk-take and make decisions differently than men do. So if you want optimized outcomes, whether it's Wall Street or Washington, you need both genders making the decisions. When you talk about the gridlock in Washington — we would not have it if we had more women. It’s a balance of natural skill sets; they tend to reach across the aisle.
Research from the White House Project shows that you need at least 30 percent women in the room to even begin to be on the path to making that difference felt. We need more women for enhanced legislation and business outcomes. Research shows that when it comes to voting on environmental issues, women vote 20 points better [in favor], no matter what party they’re affiliated with. Republican women vote more in favor of the environment, exponentially more than their male counterparts. We get it and understand clean drinking water. We get clean air. These women don’t think that if you enact legislation on environmental causes that it has to hurt business. We can create business around it.
If you look at health, education, eldercare, working family issues – all of these are issues that women vote dramatically differently on than men. Research from Stanford University also shows that women make better legislators; they work harder. It’s similar to how Jackie Robinson ascended in baseball because he had to work so much harder. Politics in the U.S. is the Wild West of the world for women.
Womenetics: Tell me about your first experience with the Women’s Campaign Fund (WCF)?
Bennett: I got in with the Women’s Campaign Fund when I ran for U.S Congress in 2008. When you run for Congress, one of the most important jobs is to raise awareness and funds across the country. I wasn’t an office holder. I was new, but I had been a successful executive, and I had 25 years of civic leadership experience in my community. I had also run for mayor of Allentown, Pa. and only lost by 42 votes, but my race for congress was a cold start.
In the early days of my congressional race, running against incumbents, I had a lot of work to do to get support and credibility. I was invited to speak to women’s groups and had one organization approach me saying: “You are terrific. You have a tough uphill battle, but we think you have what it takes to be a political player.”
It was the WCF – my first endorsement besides a rich uncle! They were the game changers in my race – fought for me and put me out there. I lost with honor but raised more that any local democrat ever has.
Womenetics: How did it turn into job?
Bennett: Not long after, I got a phone call the WCF telling me that the CEO was leaving and that they would like to put my name in the hat. I was the most surprised woman in the world when I was the last woman standing after a national search. I started in April 2009.
Womenetics: How did you approach this new job?
Bennett: I applied what made me successful in business and politics to this terrifically DNA’d organization – the oldest organization financially supporting women in the country. My goal has been to put everything they do on steroids, so we can help even more women. And so far, we have.
Womenetics: How does She Should Run and the WCF work?
Bennett: They are affiliated organizations. She Should Run works on eliminating the barriers that stop women from running for office. The U.S. is ranked 90th in the world in the number of women in our national legislature. That’s why one of the biggest jobs I have is to raise awareness.
People see Condoleezza Rice, Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton and think we have enough women in office. They’re wrong. We are being outstripped by rest of the world.
Womenetics: What does it look like when women do run for office?
Bennett: When women run, they win at equal rates to men research shows that. Women raise more money than men, at least at the U.S. Congress level, but the problem is they’re not running.
Womenetics: Why not?
Bennett: Because they’re not asked, and women don’t think they’re qualified. The number one reason women report for not running is a work-life balance. No man ever avoids running because he’s concerned with that. It’s a culturized concern for women, not a legitimate concern. They may feel very sincerely about it, but they are not right. We have somehow brainwashed women that parenting is servitude, when parenting is leadership. Creating the culture of home, family and values doesn’t mean you are responsible for picking up after them and making every dinner. We are doing a disservice to our children if we do that.
Womenetics: How do you take down that barrier?
Bennett: To overcome it, it takes woman being asked multiple times by an organization like She Should Run. Our goal is to have every woman nominate one talented woman to run. Think of how many talented women would be asked then! Also, imagine if every woman wrote a $5 check to a woman running for office, someone who supported her values. If every woman reported attacks and bigotry and sexism, we could change everything. That’s the second reason women don’t run. That’s why we created the program, Name It. Change It.
Womenetics: Can you explain how and why you developed that campaign?
Bennett: When I ran for mayor in 2001, the men delivered their stump speech, then I got up to do mine. I was interrupted in the middle when the chairman said, “I was lying in bed thinking about you. Just what are your measurements?” The next morning there was no mention of it in the newspapers even though the media was all there. I stumbled my way through.
When I ran for Congress in 2008, the media and political misogyny was breathtaking. The most heinous things were said about me, and it was picked up by mainstream media day after day and amplified. It was absolutely insane. All the organizations that tracked me said to ignore it because the common politics of the day was if you pay attention to it you amplify it.
When I came to WCF I made a list of all the organizations and met with all of their heads. If we could fight political and media sexism, we could make a big difference. It’s one of the main reasons women won’t run, why put yourself and your family through it?
In the end, the research showed that everyone was absolutely wrong. Sexism is devastating to women, and it can cause as much as an 11-point drop. As long as they go report it immediately – saying, ‘That’s sexist, and a man would ever have to deal with it’ – the woman can regain the lost votes.
Womenetics: What’s the best practice if a woman finds herself in this situation?
Bennett: The most important thing is to go right to the media source itself and call it out. When I was running for mayor I should have immediately said, “Chairman, what you just said was outrageously sexist. Let’s talk about what the voters really care about.” And then I would have written a letter to the editor of the newspaper about it.
Womenetics: Can you explain how you formed Political Parity?
Bennett: I’m very proud of having been instrumental in the creation of Political Parity. No one organization will solve this whole issue on its own. The only thing that will is all of us working together in alignment, singing off the same sheet of music.
We meet on a regular basis with any of organization in this country that is focused in part or whole on getting more women elected, no matter the party affiliation. Swanee Hunt is our co-chair along with Kerry Healey, Mitt Romney’s lieutenant governor. We collaborate on projects that help us reach the goal of 30 percent women in 2020.
Womenetics: How are women faring in this upcoming election?
Bennett: There’s been a record number women running for U.S. Congress. It’s an echo to 1992 – a presidential year and a census year, which drives redistricting. General political awareness is at a high point. This represents an enormous opportunity for women with more open seats.
In 1992, the Clarence Thomas hearings electrified women. This year you have the unprecedented level of attacks against women – call it the war on women – with 1,100 pieces of legislature across country all focusing on restructuring some part of women's rights. That woke women up.
More women are running, and more women are being helped at all levels.
Womenetics: Can you tell me about your own schedule right now — what are you doing day to day during this heated election time?
Bennett: I’m typically in Washington on Mondays and Tuesdays fielding a lot of calls from candidates across the country, attending as many fundraisers as I can for women in D.C. and being as supportive as possible. Then I’m typically in New York City on Wednesdays, appearing weekly on Megan Kelly’s show “America Live.” I meet with people in New York, the second most political beating heart in the country.
This week I’m flying out to Kentucky to speak to 600 women, talking to organizations about the critical importance of electing more women. Next week I’m off to Brussels to speak at a conference. I always continue to raise awareness.
Womenetics: Will you run again?
Bennett: I plan to run for mayor of my beloved city, Allentown, and then for the governor of Pennsylvania.
Tired of the unbridled misogynism against both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election, Amy Siskind founded The New Agenda, a non-partisan organization focused on women's advancement.
Jean Kilbourne has been vocal about the adverse effects the advertising industry's depiction of women has on our society for both men and women.
After producing the eye-opening documentary "Cover Girl Culture," Nicole Clark now travels the nation orchestrating media literacy workshops for middle and high school girls.
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.