Why all women should learn to self-promote like a politician

Channel your inner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Channel your inner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Research shows that women don’t apply to jobs unless they think they’re 100% qualified. That hesitation also applies to running for political office.

One 2011 study (pdf), released by American University’s Women & Politics Institute, surveyed 1,925 men and 1,843 women in the US whom the authors identified as “potential candidates”—people who were lawyers, educators, business leaders, and activists. The men were 60% more likely than the women to say they felt qualified to run for public office—even though men and women in the sample had comparable levels of experience in policy research, public speaking, and fundraising.

What’s more, 55% of the men who said they didn’t feel qualified to run said they’d consider doing it anyway, compared to just 39% of the women.

In essence, women often count themselves out of the running before they’ve ever taken a step. The new book Represent: The Women’s Guide to Running for Office and Changing the World aims to help women develop a more confident mentality, with advice that chips away at the anxieties that can make running for office—or achieving any other lofty goal—seem unachievable.

The mantra to negate self-doubt

Represent, written by actress June Diane Raphael and Kate Black, a policy advisor at the US Federal Communications Commission and the former chief of staff at EMILY’S List, which recruits and supports pro-choice women running for office as Democrats, argues that women are too quick to discount themselves and the contributions they could make to their communities. The authors have a motto meant to counter that self-negating mindset: “Your experience is your expertise.”

What matters to voters, they say, is how a candidate’s experiences up till now have informed their understanding of their community and the problems they want to solve. The 115th Congress, from 2017 to 2018, included 101 educators, 26 farmers and ranchers, 14 doctors, 16 members of the military or National Guard, nine social workers, eight ministers, and eight engineers. “Hopefully this gives women the feeling that their resume is enough as it is today,” Black says. “They don’t need to wait for that promotion or the next raise or when their parents are feeling better or their kids are grown or they’ve paid off their student loans.”

Getting comfortable with self-promotion

Campaigning, like angling for a new job or greater responsibility or better pay, usually requires a lot of self-promotion. Many girls, however, are raised to be humble, and learn to shy away from articulating their accomplishments and strengths out loud.

To help readers get more comfortable with self-promotion, Represent offers a seven-day challenge that asks women to share, out loud, with someone else, one thing they’re proud of. “It can be as simple as dropping into a conversation that you just got a raise or telling someone you feel like you were a fucking great mom to your kids during a really tough home week,” the authors write. “Put your wins out there.”

The goal is to make talking about your achievements feel natural, so that when you’re actively campaigning, the words will come easily.

The art of pitching yourself

An effective candidate should be able to explain why she’s running succinctly and elegantly. But it can be hard to figure out how to boil down one’s identity and experiences to a few sentences.

Represent argues that a good pitch communicates three things: What issues you care about, why you care about them, and what you’ve done so far to create change. A sample script: “My name is Heather and I’m running for office to make sure everyone—no matter what they look like, where they live, or what they do—has access to affordable, quality health care. As a nurse, I see too many families come into the ER who can’t afford the care they need. Health care is not a luxury and no one should have to sacrifice to stay healthy.”

In just three lines, listeners understand how Heather’s background as a nurse has given her unique insight into the healthcare system, and that her goal is to make medical services affordable and accessible to everyone.

Once you’ve narrowed down your pitch, Black recommends repeating those words out loud to almost everyone you meet—whether it’s the grocery-store cashier or a small-business owner at a local event. “When you say that pitch, you’ll get feedback, verbally and nonverbally,” Black says. “Does it resonate?” If you notice people’s eyes glazing over when you’re doing your spiel, it’s time to revise; if someone has opposing views on the issue you’ve chosen as your focus, you’ve found an opportunity to open up a dialogue and practice your responses to criticism.

Stepping into the breach

None of this advice is meant to deny the structural and logistical factors that may prompt women to steer clear of politics. Black notes, for example, that “women have a harder time fundraising, because they haven’t had access to those same circles of power and wealth that men have perpetuated and had almost exclusive access to for hundreds of years.”

Then there are personal and practical concerns. Running for office is both expensive and time-consuming; candidates may have to give up their day jobs in order to campaign or pay for extra child care. “Financial barriers are the reason why our government is run mostly by older, white, wealthy men,” Black and Raphael write in Represent.

So yes, getting elected to office is hardly a breeze, and—as with any big career move—it can feel scary to throw your hat into the ring. That’s why Represent places so much emphasis on self-promotion and the importance of articulating your goals out loud. When you talk with other people about what you want to achieve, vague aspirations often start to harden into reality.

And that would be a welcome development whether you’re shooting for public office, the corner office, or even just a slightly bigger office down the hall.