Since March, COVID-19 has sickened millions and killed over 150,000 in the U.S. alone, particularly in communities of color. It has forced an economic crisis disproportionately impacting our most vulnerable. And it has contributed to the exhaustion and energy fueling waves of protests since George Floyd was killed in May.
As the crisis grinds into summer, leadership at every level is increasingly important. Those at the top have struggled to manage the crisis, so governors, mayors, and local leaders have stepped up. As we consider our future, who are the leaders who will advocate for policies to guide us all through this crisis, including our most vulnerable? And how do we find and elect them?
We can start by turning to women. Female leaders around the world are setting the standard for crisis leadership today. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has gained admiration for New Zealand’s actions to limit the spread of COVID-19. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo earned an approval rating of 82% in April for her leadership. And New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell faced criticism for her early lockdown orders, but her foresight prompted apologies as infections in New Orleans initially slowed.
Diverse leadership, particularly women’s leadership, is linked by research to the prosperity, security, and resilience of communities. Women’s leadership impacts phenomena from the effectiveness of peace processes to the development of inclusive economic policies. This could be due to skills women develop operating in a world designed for men, to the caregiving roles that women often find themselves in, or to the observation that effectively governed communities are more likely to have diverse leadership.
Fundamentally, who is in the room and who sits at the table shape the perspectives considered, policies developed, and results tracked. And in Louisiana, women have few seats at the table. While 54% of registered voters are women, women only make up 19% of the Louisiana House and 15% of the Louisiana Senate. Louisiana hasn’t elected a woman statewide or sent a woman to the U.S. Congress since 2008. And Louisiana ranks among the worst states for gender parity at all levels of government, according to a nonpartisan initiative.
National trends are similar. Only nine of 50 state governors are women. Among the 100 largest cities, only 28 mayors are women. Only two of 27 members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force are women.
But this crisis affects women differently, through higher economic and health insecurities, domestic violence, and increased domestic pressures, for a start. Without women’s voices, issues like this often get forgotten or overlooked; including women in meaningful leadership roles can drive more effective policies and more inclusive governance. As our state weathers this crisis, we need leaders who rise to the challenge and bring in more perspectives. We need women’s voices. This means women must run for office.
However, women generally consider running for office less frequently and are encouraged by others to run less often than men. Women often consider themselves unqualified for office. And when women consider running, the funding and structural support required for campaigns can push them away. In Louisiana, where the Legislature is dominated by men, male voters tend to expect women to fill traditional roles, and the “old boys’ club” of politics cuts women out, efforts to develop and elect female leaders are even harder.
So this election season, as we look to the future, support female leaders and candidates. Encourage women to run, repeatedly. Donate to campaigns, make calls, knock on doors. And elevate women’s voices through every means you have. As Shirley Chisholm famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Our state’s future depends on it.
Jeannette Gaudry Haynie is executive director of the Athena Leadership Project and a Marine Corps reservist. LaTanja Silvester is cofounder of Les Femmes PAC. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the institutions they are affiliated with.