Forum discusses women in Pittsburgh politics

All 44 of the state representatives from the 10 counties of southwestern Pensylvania are men — and Gloria Forouzan won’t have it.

Forouzan is the director of Run, Baby, Run, a nonpartisan organization that supports female candidates in campaigns for the Pennsylvania statehouse. Her program was the centerpiece of The Spark, last Friday’s forum on the role of women in Pennsylvania politics.

The Spark was a joint venture between the Gender Awareness and Action in Policy Club, the Carnegie Mellon Women’s Center, and Carnegie Mellon’s Office of Gender Issues. Held in the Hamburg Hall auditorium, the forum featured an expert panel of women who have made it their goal to encourage more women to get involved in local politics.

In addition to the panel, the forum was attended by four female political hopefuls, three of whom are Run, Baby, Run candidates: two for the Pennsylvania statehouse; and one for U.S. Congress. To open on the forum, moderator Linda Babcock, a renowned economist, presented a startling statistic.

“The U.S. ranks 69th in the world in terms of percent of female representatives in political office,” Babcock stated. “Germany, Rwanda, Peru, Estonia, and Slovakia all rank above us.”

“We are very interested in increasing the number of women in politics,” said Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “We are also very aware that Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 states in female political representation.”

The forum focused on many different obstacles for women interested in seeking political office, including the need to be prompted to run and the lack of support from political parties.

“Women run when they are asked to run. Women want to be asked to run,” Forouzan said. “Women run when they think they are qualified to run. For whatever reason, women don’t often feel as qualified for office as men.”

According to Arnet, it is hard for women to get party endorsement in Pennsylvania, especially in southwestern areas, where ties to labor leadership are strong.

“Women who try to get into politics are often told ‘It’s not your turn’ or ‘It’s not your time,’ ” Arnet said, indicating that parties often give preference to men that they have cultivated for the political arena.
More specifically, Arnet mentioned that women who are pro-choice have a harder time getting Democratic Party nominations, as the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania is taking a less aggressive stance on female reproductive rights.

According to Arnet, these shifts within the party result in women being asked to not run for political office by high-ranking officials.

She explained that democratic Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell asked pro-choice State Treasurer Barbara Hafer not to seek re-election so that Bob Casey, who is against abortion, could have the position.

Tonya Payne, councilwoman for the sixth district of Pittsburgh, also commented on how hard it was to gain party endorsement against her opponent, an entrenched incumbent.

“At every turn when people said we couldn’t do it, we stepped it up a notch,” said Payne in reference to her party’s initial unwillingness to support her campaign.

Even for women who have no partisan affiliation, like panelist Deborah Grass, it is difficult to break into positions of leadership in local government. Grass, a policy specialist for over 300 local governments at the County Department of Economic Development, has worked in city management for 20 years. While trying to mentor both men and women who aspire to be city managers, she admits she is always on the lookout for talented young females interested in local policy development.

“I’m generally the only woman in the room. I don’t have the same legitimacy as the men,” Grass said.
“[As a woman,] you’re automatically suspect. You have to spend a lot of time proving yourself.”

The forum ended with a discussion of ways women can overcome the obstacles in their path to political representation.

The panelists nodded their agreement to Forouzan’s comment that the most important thing to do as a female candidate is to “put on your blinders and stick to your vision.”

She noted that women are more often influenced by criticism, but that should not obscure their goal.
“You just have to grow a thick skin and not worry about what people are saying,” Grass added.

According to Forouzan, her goal as director of Run, Baby, Run is to get so many women interested in running for political office that she works herself right out of a job.

Graduate student Natalia Rudiak of the Heinz School of Public Policy coordinated the event.