Skip to main content

Women Running for Office with Erin Loos Cutraro

Women Running for Office with Erin Loos Cutraro

Episode 42: Women Running for Office, with Erin Loos Cutraro

Erin Loos Cutraro is the Co-Founder & CEO of She Should Run, an organization working to increase the number of women getting involved in elected office. After an intense weekend where more than 3 million people around the world marched to make their voices heard in support of equality and women’s rights, this is the perfect time to talk about the reasons there aren’t that many women in elected office. Erin shares some of the work She Should Run is doing to connect leadership and policy, research they have done around the double standards that women face in the campaign trail, some of the barriers to entry for women, and where you should start if you’re curious about running for office. Also, Maricella and Kristy went to DC together this weekend and the two debrief about how they feel about their role in politics.

Episode Transcript

00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hi, everyone and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. Maricella and I have a new appreciation for each other 'cause we just spent the weekend together in Washington DC, or in Baltimore but with some time in Washington DC.

00:28 Maricella: We did.

00:29 KW: And why were we there?

00:29 Maricella: We were there for the march, we were going to the DC Women's March and it was amazing, it was a great experience.

00:37 KW: Yeah, and it absolutely was. We'd like to say a little props to everyone that's listening to the podcast that participated in marches around the world, that supported others, that wanted to, felt the need to, were inspired to march themselves, that engaged in dialogue around equality for all of us. And I was really open into that dialogue and to learning from others, to supporting each other, to having those conversations. But more importantly, in something that we're gonna talk about more on this podcast with our guest, Erin Loos Cutraro, is taking action, and how do we not just have the conversations, which are very important, but then what are the next steps after that?

01:29 Maricella: Yeah, and that's key. We hear this from everyone, and we've been thinking a lot about it. I know I've been thinking a lot about it as I was writing some copy today, that everyone marched for different reasons, around the world. There were 3 million people around the world in these marches, and everyone had some inkling of knowledge of why they were there. But I think the most important thing is that everyone was there because they knew their voice mattered, and they knew they had that power, and they knew that they had to own it, and go for it, and make it their own and that's what's powerful to me.

02:12 KW: When we were reminiscing earlier and saying that the chant, "This is what democracy looks like," has been in our heads all weekend, after the march. But that is... What you're saying is, I wanna repeat it because I think that this is very important. We live in a world, in The United Stated where it is a democracy, and we have all voices from local government and policies up to the federal government. And this is such an opportunity for us through how we communicate with our elected officials or how we support organizations that represent our ideals, represent our values, how we can support each other, and just keep the conversations going around this, and keep the topics alive.

03:00 KW: I've truly been inspired this election season, and since the election with the level of dialogue and desire for knowledge and information, more so than anytime before. And I think that that's important because we're re-engaging in that democratic process and re-engaging in taking control over our world and being a part of that future. And that's huge, and I've had a great time talking to my kids about it, and why did I march or why is it important that that they watch the debates, why is it important that they know who their elected officials are. Asking them how they feel about global warming or how do you feel about education. And then, they're young and so it's...

03:49 Maricella: What did they say?

03:51 KW: It's really interesting. Well, Benjamin's school talks a lot about the environment and ownership over the environment within schools and so the importance of...

04:02 Maricella: That's super fun.

04:03 KW: It is very Brooklyn. But the importance of growing your food, your vegetables, the importance of recycling and throwing things away, excess and why we don't need excess, not using plastics or other materials. And so that's something that is, to be honest, just ingrained in him, that he is just... It's something that they know and that they've grown up with in the school system and in our family, of course. It comes, it starts in the home. So you'd be surprised how much children know and the opinions that they have about that, and that we're creating future generations of Americans and citizens that do really care, and have opinions about these issues.

04:57 Maricella: I love that. I loved in DC, honestly, seeing the kids there. They were girls and boys, and they were there but their signs and just being exposed to things. I've talked about my upbringing, which is very different from what you guys are seeing here. But for me, I grew up with seeing how how politics, democracy, war, was affecting children everywhere and I tend to forget about that. So seeing people here, have their kids engaged in those conversations kind of brings back some memories. And it really is what shapes the future and shapes what you become, and what you start doing when you grow up and how much you care about actually having an impact in the world, I think.

05:46 KW: And it's also important as we think about our increasingly inclusive world and society. And my kids, their friends are from all different religions, backgrounds, socioeconomic groups. Their friends parents' are incredibly diverse and different sexual orientations. And there's something that comes out of it, and Lauren Leader-Chivée and I talked about this at an earlier podcast about addressing it heads on and having those honest conversations with kids about this is the way it used to be and this is why it's important that it will never be that way again, and why it's important that you and all of us continue to look at the world with open eyes and to appreciate and love everybody. And it's funny because they don't... When we have these conversations, it's like, "Yeah, of course we would, of course everyone's equal." But I say it all the time to them because I don't ever want them to think any differently.

06:53 Maricella: I love that, good job.

06:56 KW: We're trying. In other ways, we fail, they were on the tablet all day yesterday, but anyway.

07:03 Maricella: Anyway.

07:04 KW: So, we did ask our community, we asked the Ellevate community what they were doing to take action and we've been using the word action quite a bit. I'm sure many of you have heard it on social media and in other platforms, but it is about what we are going to do with these conversations we're having with these feelings and emotions and values and beliefs. So, how is the Ellevate community planning to take action?

07:31 Maricella: Yeah, this is part of a larger survey we did, so it's not one of our weekly polls. But it's extremely interesting to me, we asked our members in our community if they would be taking any action after the election. 70% of them said they would be taking more action to help women advance, so mentoring, promoting and sponsoring and that's extremely reflective of our community because by joining Ellevate, most of these women already are kind of putting their money where their mouth is and saying, "This is important to me and that's why I'm becoming a part of this group." 62% of women in our community say they will be spending money with companies whose values align with mine, which I also think it's very important because money is power. And we have control over a lot of that money as women and more than 80% of consumer spending. 42% of our community says they will be donating to political candidates and advocacy groups. 40% will reach out to my representative, which is very important, please do so. 32% say they will be attending rallies and marches.

08:41 Maricella: So I'm assuming those are almost a third of our members who were there around the world this weekend. 17% will be writing blogs, articles and op-eds. And actually, I wanna call this one out because women only write a very, very, very small percentage of editorial op-eds and thought leadership in that sense, and it's important that we do so. And as Ellevate, big plug, we give you a platform to do so and we want more of our community to be raising their voices. 11% said they would not do anything. And 4% said they would be running for office, which it's a small percentage but it's a lot of what we've been hearing. We've been hearing a lot of people who may not be thinking about doing it now but are contemplating the idea of running for office, and that's important because we need those voices.

09:34 KW: Well, there's roughly 20% of elected officials today are women. So, if we're gonna add another 4%, I know that's 4% of our membership, but let's say we expand that across all women then that's a pretty big increase from that 20%, so we're gonna keep moving forward and keep inspiring and motivating women and providing that education. So that's a lot of what Erin speaks about on the podcast today, she is the founder of She Should Run, which is an organization provides education and resources for women looking to run for public office.

10:09 Maricella: Let's get to it.


10:23 KW: Really excited to have you here, you probably don't remember this, I'm gonna do a little fan-girl. I first saw you speak at a Thompson Rogers event a year ago, maybe longer than a year ago. It was talking about diversity in the legal profession, but broader professional world as well and you just rocked it on the panel. You just did an amazing job. And I've been paying attention, following closely She Should Run over the past year. Can you tell us a little bit more about your organization?

10:52 Erin Loos Cutraro: I would love to. So, She Should Run is really focused on inspiring women and girls to see what's possible in elected office, and we do so kind of two main ways. So the first way is kind of amplifying that overall case, making that case that women's voices matter in government and that we'll have better solutions and policies when we have a more diverse governing body. And then we also run programs that really target that early stage interest. So, so much and so many of the resources that people think about in politics kind of go to this place of learning how to fundraise, learning how to run a media campaign and those things are incredibly important, but we have to first get women to the table and it's often not those particular skill building sets that are the main reason people are coming. So we first make that case of that connection between leadership in politics through our programs.

11:51 KW: So, what are the typical barriers that you find for women not thinking about it or honestly being hesitant to run for office.

12:01 EC: Yeah. So there's a lot of parallels even to the business community when it comes to women stepping up to run. Primarily, it's the classic recruitment issue. So not surprisingly, if you look at our current governing bodies, the majority are made up by men and white men for that matter. And so when a position comes open, an elected role, there's an opportunity, people often go to their networks, the people that they know and history kind of repeats itself 'cause the people that are most often around look like you. And so women just aren't showing up on these short lists of potential future candidates when the time comes that we're talking about who should run.

12:49 EC: And so number one, it's that women aren't recruited at the same rate as men. And number two is that women often don't see themselves as qualified. So similar to the business community, again, that promotion comes up in your organization and women are only gonna apply if they meet most of the criteria that are required for the role. But men will put themselves out there and take a risk and say, "Oh, I can do that." And we see the same thing in politics, women are saying, "Well, I think I need to know more about all of the policies that exist." And therefore we're very quick to say, "I don't think I'm ready for that role or I don't think I could do that role."

13:35 KW: When She Should Run came out with some research around the political candidates who were being attacked in a public space, who I think you acknowledge it and move on, is that...

13:49 EC: Yes, exactly. So we did research that we called Name it, Change it. We did it in partnership with Women's Media Center to look at the sexism that women face, the double standards that women face on the campaign trail. And these are real experiences that women have everyday from awful, terrible, egregious examples that many people could probably point to. To the more subtle stuff where you're questioned about your time and your ability to balance your leadership role, how could you possibly do that as a mother?

14:18 KW: You're a mom.

14:20 EC: Right. How could you possibly do that? And this reality, we always say flip it around, if you wouldn't ask that same question or suggest the same of the man, then you need to rethink what you're asking. And so we wanted to look at that because conventional wisdom with... And this was a few years back that we first did the research. And conventional wisdom by many political consultants was, "Let's not draw attention to these occasions because we're just giving them more airtime." So if a woman experiences something particularly egregious or a double standard question or coverage about her appearance, the thought was, "Let's not draw attention to it." But something in our guts just said, "This just doesn't seem right, it seems like... "How are we ever gonna change the system if we just accept these things as the norm?

15:10 KW: Sure.

15:11 EC: And so we dug into that and found the first part, which was not terribly surprising, which was when these things happen it hurts women in the eyes of voters when it comes to their likeability. And this is a particularly vulnerable spot for women, it's just we're held to a higher standard, we have to be really likable. And so the fact that this is hitting women where it really hurts them on the campaign trail is a problem. So we identified the problem. But then we looked at response mechanisms and okay, if we call these things out and say, "I think you wouldn't ask the same question of," insert my male opponent's name and then pivot... " And what I think the voters really want to hear about is," pivot back to your talking points. That not only do you make up lost ground but you get a bump in the eyes of voters because they look at you and say, "Oh, if you'll stand up for yourself, you'll stand up for me."

16:10 KW: I love that. So, is the highest impact running for congress or federal government or are there opportunities on a more local level? Meanings, is there a way to kind of start small or scale up or if you're really more focused on your community, how do you drive the greatest impact in the areas in which you are most vested?

16:33 EC: Yeah, I love that question because we have... And I think it's difficult for us to see this the way that politics is covered in our country in the media. But there are over 500,000 elected positions in the United States and often it is those roles, it's the roles that are at the very local level that have the most influence on our day to day lives. And so we look at, where our sort of attention, frankly it kind of follows the money, unfortunately. There's so much money poured into federal races and it's what's in our faces and in our newspapers. And when it comes to how politics is covered, are those federal roles. And it's not to suggest those roles aren't important, of course they are. But the reality is it's those local offices, town hall, school board, even PTA roles, PTO roles, that are going to really have that impact that you're gonna feel every single day. So I always encourage women, it's not even about thinking about, "Oh, it's a smaller role," but to really think about if it's... Find the role that's doable for you and then you can flex your muscle when it comes to the power that you have influence over.

17:49 KW: What are you passionate about? You talk to individuals who start companies and it's like, "Well, if you're gonna start this company and you want someone to invest in your company, they wanna see passion, that you are fully committed to it, that it is something you believe in." And so it's the same with an elected office. If you're gonna run for office and you want people to invest in you I.e. With their votes, you just want it to be something that you're very passionate about. So I care very much about the New York school system. Or I care very much about the New York State policies and the laws and legislation or whatever that may be, but finding where's the area that is most meaningful for you.

18:27 EC: That's right. And one of the tips that we're giving people even right now is, women even new women are coming to She Should Run and saying, "Okay well, how can I get started? I know I wanna be more involved." Is really pushing them to start doing the research at the local level. So, it sounds really simple but can be very powerful, is to just kinda map the budgets in your local community and who has power over those budgets. So, if it is the budget of your town who has the decision making power over how that money is spent and again, back to this issue of these are the things that are gonna affect you every day. But what are those roles? What's the responsibility of those individuals who are elected? And then it's not just one governing body, there are multiple governing bodies and sort of following where they are to see what the different roles are to find that place where you'll feel most inspired and you'll feel like your time will be best spent.

19:29 KW: Also, clearly I've been thinking about this. No plans right now...

19:33 EC: I was gonna say, wait a minute, are you running for office?

19:35 KW: No, I'm not making announcement right now but I... So, the work I do with Ellevate, I joined Ellevate because I believe very much in gender equality. And there's so much work that we need to do, but that we are doing and I'm inspired by that, and I'm motivated by that. But I see, for me personally, when I look at the federal government and in the last administration, there was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and we had companies signing on a pledge for equal pay. But then I look at the local New York City and we've passed legislation for paid leave, we are passing legislation to ensure that 5% of government contracts are going to women in minority owned businesses. We're looking at legislation around equal pay and not disclosing prior paid data. And so it seems like so much more is happening around the things that I care about on that local level. And so I've certainly thought about, "Okay, where, not only can I have the most impact, but where is it most aligned with what are the things that I really care about?"

20:44 EC: That's right. I think back to President Obama's farewell speech and the message about healthy democracies and if you don't like the way that something is going, if you don't like the direction that your country's taking, your community's taking, a budget is taking, then you have to organize, you have to step up. And I think you're right. There's something really powerful about really understanding those connections and the influence that you can have in your local community.

21:19 EC: And frankly, it's what we're doing at She Should Run, is taking these examples of women who are doing it, who have had this influence and are often a little pleasantly surprised by how much control and power and positive influence they can have and sharing that and saying, "You don't realize how much your voice matters." And you don't have to be the only person. It doesn't have to be the biggest role. And it could be for you it sounds like potential to run for office someday, I'm gonna hold to that. For somebody who's maybe thinking about it, even starting in a way that's about getting engaged in an issue campaign in your local community, will really help you to see how much influence you can have for good.

22:05 KW: Absolutely. So, who inspires you?

22:10 EC: I am inspired by so many people. I really think the core of what keeps me going every day at She Should Run comes back to how I was raised by my mom, who frankly she was primarily a single parent, didn't have a lot of time on her hands. We didn't talk about politics very much. But I watched her every day sort of navigate life and really figure out just how you can get it done. And she really, for my sister and I, just didn't have a lot of patience for whining or... Well, whining, I think about that with my kids now too, but I don't have patience for that.


22:50 KW: Me neither.

22:51 EC: No whining.

22:52 KW: It's my number one pet-peeve. I don't wanna hear it.

22:54 EC: It's terrible. But truly, she was always even we had complicated things we were trying to figure out. It was like, "Let's get to a solution, let's move forward from here." And that really tracked forward for me professionally and personally in who I aligned myself with in life. It was always and continues to be women who wanna get things done and that takes me right frankly to politics because it's no joke that the research says and I see this play out every day that men run for office to gain power and women run for office to get things done. And it's not to suggest that there's not power in that, and women shouldn't be afraid of power. I would never suggest that. But I think the root there is just really figuring out how to get things done.

23:39 EC: So, I am inspired everyday by the women who I see stepping up to lead, it's the women at the local level. Right now in the She Should Run community, we're seeing tremendous growth and it's women who are engaging in the political process for the very first time. And it's not a big name. By all means, I could tell you about all the great women elected at the high level who inspire me, but it's the women in Middle America who don't have a huge community around them, who know who they are, and they are stepping up and saying, "You know what I just did, I went to my county clerk and I got a list of all the elected positions in my county, and now I know exactly what I can run for." And to me, I think that's incredible, I think that's where it starts.

24:27 KW: What do you think of the future generations? Many of the conversations I've had are with women that are more interested in social impact, in social good, driving change. So, what are you hearing?

24:42 Maricella: I'm hearing a few things. First, I'm really inspired by the next generation of women leaders, because I think... Especially in our country that's become so deeply divided in terms of partisanship and polarizing issues, it frankly feels like it's really hard to be effective in that environment. What we find overwhelmingly with young women, is they're less likely to identify with parties, that they don't hear the terms the same way older generations do, so they're not as likely to kind of go down the path of being... Distracted is probably not the right word, but being laser focused on just one issue. And you're right.

25:32 Maricella: The connections, the drive, to social cause is there. I think the challenge and the opportunity that exists, and it's certainly what we're doing at She Should Run, is how do you make the case that having an eye on government and policy matters? And that if you're a young woman who cares about insert any issue that you care about, and you're spending your every extra minute focused on advancing that issue, but you're not thinking about your elected leaders and you're not thinking about the policies, then you're missing the boat on an opportunity to accelerate the very change that you wanna see. I think there are so many ways that we can have influence, that reigniting or maybe establishing for the first time for some, that connection between the power and influence of accelerating what you believe in through elected office, is a priority.

26:34 KW: It was so amazing to me this election cycle, because I grew up in a tiny little town in New Jersey. One of my parents was Republican, one was Democrat but that was all that I knew. We did not talk about politics. You don't talk about politics or money. And my exposure to politics was really through the local paper, or the local news channel, which were pretty biased given the area in which I grew up in. But that's it, that's all you hear. And we've talked about this election cycle, the impact of media and social media. But I felt very limited in my exposure to what was happening in politics and the issues and the representation of that. To 2016, where it was all over the place. You don't know what to listen to, because there's wars breaking out on Twitter and there's one sided commentary everywhere. And then you have family and friends that are more vocal than I've ever seen people be. Debate is healthy and debate is good, and it's about how do the two parties from different sides express their opinions and kind of come together with a joint understanding and a joint solution.

27:47 EC: Yeah. Look, kind of harking back for me to my grad school days, and I had this great grad school director. I was studying Communication and the theory of communication. And he often talked about what was known as, or it's still known, as third places. And these are places where we can come together. Maybe it's a tavern, maybe it's a salon in some way, and we can have unexpected conversations with people that enrich our thinking. And I think... You can't point to one variable, but social media has made this really difficult, because we hear what we wanna hear and we're friends with the people we wanna be friends with. And even how we receive our... And have a hunger to receive our information, is in these sound bites, it's the 140 characters.

28:48 KW: Yeah, the click bait.

28:49 EC: Yeah. And so that's how we're communicating too. And it's like we're afraid to go any deeper than that. And the reality is, until we figure out a way to re-engage in those healthy conversations... And I know for me, look, I grew up in Missouri, is now known as a very conservative state. At one point it was a Bellwether, very much a swing state. But you felt, even when I went back home, people would just shut down and not wanna engage. They would take one look at somebody who looks a little different than they are... And this is either side, take a look, make an assumption, put them in the character that we have in our mind, and step away because you just can't take it, you can't imagine what they're thinking.

29:38 KW: So, why did you start She Should Run?

29:42 EC: It's such an important part of who we are now, to know that... My background was in electoral work, so working with women who are already out there, who are already running. And I'm a systems thinker, I always have been, and I'm really impatient which is really annoying to my staff, I'm sure. I'm impatient for things, I want things to move more quickly. And when I was working in electoral work and seeing women run and seeing the results each election cycle of us gaining a percentage point. Seeing $63 million dollars raised for women candidates from groups like Emily's List and then seeing that we moved one percentage point. And knowing that the research, pairing this all together and knowing that the research says women aren't recruited at the same rate, we're so hard on ourselves, we don't wanna step out there. We have an electoral system that makes it truly difficult for working parents to give time in elected service, that we wanted to come up with a simple solution to make the case for women to really consider elected office.

31:01 EC: And what's important about when She Should Run was started is, I remember getting a lot of pushback about the fact that we were gonna do this in a non-partisan way and that we weren't gonna have an issue litmus. And I came working out of a partisan space, I worked in some non-partisan space but issue space. And my theory was and it certainly is resonating now, though it's taken years to get here, my theory was that if you really want to invite new people into the process, you can't start in place where we're putting them in a box. You can't start in a place that says, "Okay, you're a Democrat, you're a Republican, you're an Independent. You're pro-choice, you're anti-choice, you're pro environment, you're pro gun/anti-gun." That's a terrible place to start if you're trying to bring new people in. And so everything that we have done with She Should Run that took years to get traction was about building a safe space for people who believe that we are a smarter government if we have diversity in office and that that means diversity, means that you are going to have people at the table who you do not agree with.

32:14 KW: Sure. What do we do today to capitalize on this momentum, to prepare to run for office and/or change policy, advocate, lift other women up?

32:26 EC: Yeah. I think the number one thing I could say and we're running an action campaign now that reflects this is that it's about knowing the power of your voice. So knowing that you, no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, can have influence overseeing a more diverse government and that can be the things you can do through She Should Run. You can ask other women, you can use our Invite A Woman To Run tool. Go to our site, tell us about a great woman leader who should step up and run. We'll get her connected with our resources. If you yourself wanna run someday, we run a program called the She Should Run Incubator.

33:12 EC: It's easy to do from home, on your own schedule and we have an active community that lives kinda behind a private wall that really are getting to know one another on a more local level and in person and lift other women up. Too often, that very fear that we have when we're thinking about running for office is we don't wanna put ourselves out there 'cause we know the terrible things that could potentially be said. But how much better of a world would this be if we knew that women would have our backs and would lift up the good things. So be that person and know that that makes a difference and that will change the number of women who are stepping up to run.

33:52 KW: Great. Thanks so much for joining us today.

33:54 EC: Thank you for having me.


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook: