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State program aiming to get women in office

| Monday, Jan. 2, 2012

Chelsa Wagner knows that being a woman in a field where men "tend to groom replacements for themselves" can present challenges.

One of Pittsburgh's first women to be elected to a full term in the state House, Wagner officially leaves behind that job in Harrisburg when she is inaugurated today as Allegheny County's first female controller.

"You can't change the nature of the game," said Wagner, a Beechview Democrat. "You have to figure out how to run within it."

Recognizing the political arena presents different challenges for men and women, the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University is hosting Ready to Run, a conference geared toward women, on Jan. 21.

"Whether it's state or local, we don't see women running (for office) at the same rates as men," said Dana Brown, executive director of the center. "We need women to run to win. They do win at the same rates as men."

This is the first year the university is bringing the program to Pittsburgh. The statistics speak to the need for such programs in Western Pennsylvania, equality advocates said.

In the General Assembly, 43 members — or 17 percent of the total — are women.

According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, Pennsylvania ranks 41st out of 50 states with regard to female legislators.

"What that means for a little girl growing up in Pittsburgh is, at every level of government, from the mayor to City Council to County Council to Congress, it's very possible not one woman is representing you," said Heather Arnet, CEO of the Pittsburgh-based Women and Girls Foundation, a nonprofit promoting social change regarding gender equity.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, remembers a day early in her political career when she was campaigning to become a township supervisor.

"I was making dinner for my boys, and I remember thinking, 'I'm going to lose because my opponent is out knocking on doors right now,' " she said. "It is a challenge to balance the responsibilities you have at home and try running for office. It's very demanding."

Ward said many women don't have the option of staying away from home for days at a time, as politics can demand, especially if they have young children.

"No matter how liberated we are, we are still responsible for the home front," she said.

Women have made progress. In 2004, Twanda Carlisle was Pittsburgh City Council's only female member. The council now has three: Darlene Harris, Theresa Kail-Smith and Natalia Rudiak.

Wagner said that in an era when people are frustrated and have lost trust in government, "There is a bias people have toward trusting females."

But in order to win, women must run, Arnet and Brown said. They believe women often are dissuaded from politics because of barriers — historical and current.

"You have to remember, women have only had the right to vote since the 1920s. This isn't ancient history," Arnet said. "We haven't even had 100 years. Men have been working in political parties for hundreds more years. We have some catching up to do."

Because of this, women are less familiar with the political system and how to navigate it successfully, Arnet said. They don't have a large pool of mentors to help them learn to overcome challenges, such as fear of public speaking or fundraising.

Ready to Run will offer training in media and public speaking with Deb Sofield, a national award-winning speaker and executive speech and presentations coach, and a session titled, "Fundraising for Success," by Nancy Bocskor, internationally renowned political speaker and educator.

"Women are always better at advocating for other people than themselves. When they have to advocate for themselves, they find it to be scary," Bocskor said. "Women like to fund programs; men like to have their names on buildings. Women have to bring it down to the micro-personal level and make an emotional connection."

Sofield said that, for women, the key to overcoming anxiety lies in becoming passionate about issues.

"Decisions are made every day on their behalf, without them at the table," she said. "They have to run."

Additional Information:

If you go

Ready to Run Pittsburgh will be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 21 on Chatham's Shadyside campus in the Mellon Board Room. The cost is $65. You can also register online .

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