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Cultivating female politicians

Colleges across the country continue to enroll truly exceptional and politically inclined young women. They hold leadership positions in their college Republican or Democratic clubs, volunteer their time on campaigns, and some want to work in politics after graduation. Yet, at the same time their male classmates begin to daydream of their swearing in ceremony — paraphrasing the '80s pop anthem — girls just wanna not run.

In fact, research suggests that male college students are about twice as likely as their female classmates to have thought about running for office. And, this ambition gap will persist into their post-graduation, professional lives.

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My job as a political science professor allows me both the privilege of interacting with the next generation of female leaders and a front row seat to the determinants of the gender gap in political representation: Women are less likely to express interest in running for office; even when qualified, women do not perceive themselves as capable for candidacy; and, women need encouragement to even consider running. I can assure you that hearing "I'm not 'something' enough to run for office" from an outstanding female student — at the same time that women make up less than 20 percent of Congress and hold only six governorships — never ceases to be painful.

My experience at Goucher College mirrored the experience that Melissa Deckman and Christine Wade were having at Washington College. Together, we decided that we would use our collective resources to work toward closing the gender gap — the next Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski could be on our respective campuses this very minute, and perhaps all she needs is a little encouragement. Thus, last month, the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College and the Louis L. Goldstein Program in Public Affairs at Washington College launched our joint venture, Training Ms. President. This program has a simple, yet imperative, goal: encouraging young women to consider public office as a future career.

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At our day-long seminar, an all-female, bipartisan, group of accomplished politicos and elected officials imparted knowledge that could fill volumes. Below you will find the abridged highlights of their collective wisdom, in hopes that you will share it with the aspiring future delegates, mayors, senators, governors and madam presidents in your lives:

•Define yourself, before someone else does, and stay on that message. The most successful candidates can succinctly define their agendas and values consistently and confidently.

•Remember that when you ask for a vote, you are asking that voter to give you the power to make decisions on their behalf. Become comfortable asking for power.

•Run on issues that keep you up at night. Find the fire in your gut; if you can't find the fire then political candidacy isn't for you.

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•Grow thick skin — and if it fails to protect you, only cry in the bathroom. No public tears or shouting matches; never contribute to the persistent "too emotional" stereotype.

•Run a race that you will be proud of even in defeat; stay out of the mud. Remember that you can't take back personal attacks. If you run a tough, fair and policy-focused campaign you won't burn bridges to future political opportunities.

•Be your best self. You know when you are faking it and so will voters. Surround yourself with a support structure — close family and friends — who will ground you in authenticity.

•When you see another woman's ideas and contributions being overlooked or not given appropriate credit, say something. This applies to the women on the other side of the party aisle.

I hope that this encouragement and advice can help plant the seeds of candidacy that will one day be cultivated by groups like Emerge America or the National Federation of Republican Women. The struggle for equal representation will be won through a series of small victories; it's the pace at which these victories transpire that is yet to be determined.

What I do know for certain is that if we continue at our current rate of ambition, recruitment and candidacy, it will take 500 years for women to reach parity in elected office. I've heard my entire life that patience is a female virtue — while that might be true, I know I'm not the only one whose patience is wearing a bit thin.

Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an assistant professor of political science. Her email is mileah.kromer@goucher.edu; Twitter: @goucherpoll.

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