Founded by Melinda French Gates, Pivotal Ventures accelerates social progress in the United States by removing barriers that hold people back.

NEW Leadership® New Jersey 2013 students collaborate on a women's political leadership project, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Photo courtesy of Center for American Women and Politics

Breaking Down Barriers for Women in Politics

By Emily Lockwood, Director, Program Strategy, Women's Political Power, Pivotal Ventures
Share this
Facebook
X
Linkedin
Email

Our founder, Melinda French Gates, has outlined a bold vision for building women’s political power in the United States through her work at Pivotal Ventures.

“When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, it was yet another reminder that we still live in a country where decisions are made for women instead of by them,” she wrote in TIME. “I’m convinced that having more women at all levels of government will make government work better. I’m also convinced there’s a realistic path to getting there."

The vision Melinda describes is part of Pivotal Ventures’ broader commitment to expanding women’s power and influence in the United States—positioning more women to make decisions, control resources, and shape policies and perspectives.

Learn More About Our Strategy

Currently, women hold only one-third of seats in state legislatures and one in four seats in Congress—and women of color are especially underrepresented.

Recently, we sat down with a group of state legislators—six women and one nonbinary lawmaker—to hear about the challenges and opportunities they see to making our government more reflective of the people it represents.

Here are five takeaways from our conversations.

Women—and especially women of color—are caught in an electability trap.

One of the first steps to winning office is raising enough money to mount a competitive race. And the first step to raising money is convincing donors you are a competitive candidate. But women candidates of color have historically faced a number of barriers to getting this kind of buy-in, whether it’s entrenched bias or not having access to major networks and connections. “It’s hard enough to run for office no matter who you are,” New York State Senator Lea Webb told us. “But as a woman of color, it’s a very different experience."

Removing the barriers that candidates like Senator Webb face is critical for the long-term health of our democracy. “When Black women run for office, they not only challenge biased views of who can or should lead, but they are doing what they can to create a more representative democracy,” Glynda Carr, the President and CEO of our partner Higher Heights, told us. “They need support on the campaign trail in the way of unbiased media coverage, volunteer time, money, and at the ballot box with votes."

There is a real opportunity for donors at all levels to step up and support women candidates of color, especially since these candidates demonstrate time and again that constituents are hungry for the vision and values they bring to the table. “A lot of times, we see fantastic women who should be in office, but they are outspent,” said Florida State Representative Michele Rayner-Goolsby, adding that more organizations need to “put their money where their mouth is and support women financially."

It's not just a hard job; it’s a risky one.

A 2022 survey from The Pipeline Fund, a Pivotal Ventures partner, found that 61 percent of women candidates experienced harassment during their campaigns. The lawmakers we spoke with shared some of the troubling stories behind the data. Virginia State Delegate Irene Shin said she regularly receives abuse that fetishes her as an Asian woman. “It’s not unusual for me to find a death threat in my inbox,” she said.

Understandably, widespread threats of violence and harassment have a chilling effect on many women’s willingness to run for office and their ability to do their job once elected. That’s why, as part of our work to remove systemic barriers to women’s representation, Pivotal is partnering with organizations working on democracy reforms, like Represent Women, and increasing security protections for women once in office, like States United—and ensuring that all of these efforts center women of color. 

Women hold only 1/3rd of state
legislative seats in the U.S.

Animated illustration of the stat: Women hold only one third of legislative seats in the US,  ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

The right support can even the playing field.

Changing the face of power in this country requires supporting diverse candidates throughout their political careers—as they prepare to run for office, as they campaign, and as they govern.

Pivotal Ventures has supported Vote Run Lead, which offers resources and trainings that equip women with the skills they need to run for office, from fundraising tactics to tips for staying safe while canvassing. It also connects them to a network of women with political experience who can serve as campaign managers, volunteer coordinators, mentors, and even donors.

We heard from many of the legislators we talked to about how crucial this support can be. Women from historically marginalized groups can have a hard time breaking into the informal networks of power that dominate politics. Support from organizations like Vote Run Lead helps even the playing field.

"True political power for women looks like women being elected into policy that actually serves women and families."

Denise Feriozzi, Pipeline Initiative, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures
Denise Feriozzi
Pipeline Initiative

Some practical changes would go a long way, especially for caregivers.

One issue that nearly every lawmaker brought up was child care—specifically, how difficult it is to balance caregiving responsibilities with the time-and-travel intensive demands of a job in politics. As State Senator Samra Brouk—New York’s second sitting state senator to give birth in the last 50 years—put it, “What do I do with my baby when I’m living away from home for six months a year?"

It’s with lawmakers like Senator Brouk in mind that our partner Vote Mama Lobby is advancing reforms that would allow lawmakers to vote and attend hearings remotely, a measure that many states temporarily adopted during the pandemic. Vote Mama Lobby is also working to ensure that candidates are permitted to use campaign funds to pay for child care and that state legislators have access to paid family medical leave. 

"More people actually tap into government when someone like them is serving."

Photo of Erin Vilardi, Vote Run Lead, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures
Erin Vilardi
Vote Run Lead

Diversity leads to better policymaking.

Years of research and the experience of the legislators we interviewed demonstrate that women lawmakers are more likely to collaborate, compromise, and reach across the aisle. They also bring unique perspectives to the table, often focusing on issues that have traditionally been neglected by male-dominated legislatures. Finally, the data is clear that they sponsor more bills, pass more laws, and bring more federal money back to their districts.

Since the policies that touch people’s day-to-day lives are set at the state level, the ripple effects are enormous. Representative Lorena Austin, the first nonbinary, gender nonconforming lawmaker to serve in Arizona’s legislature, explains that diversity within government has impacts far outside it. As they put it, “When our voices are at the table, that creates equity for everybody.”