Today, 62% of elected offices at the federal, state and local level are occupied by white men.
But according to data from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that studies the demographics of those elected into office in the U.S., that doesn't mean they have an advantage in political elections. In fact, a June study by the group found that when women and people of color run for office, they have the same chance at winning as their white male counterparts.
Erin Loos Cutraro is the founder of She Should Run, and she wants to make sure women have what they need to enter and win those races. A former political director for the Women's Campaign Fund, a nonpartisan organization committed to achieving 50/50 representation by men and women in elected office, Cutraro saw first-hand the pipeline problem that women face in politics.
"Not nearly enough women see what's possible for their leadership in elected office," she tells CNBC Make It. "And too many women, when they do see what's possible for themselves, disqualify themselves because they don't feel they are qualified enough to do the job."
In an effort to address this challenge, Cutraro launched She Should Run in 2011. The non-partisan organization recruits and trains women to run for office. Her goal, she says, is to get 250,000 women to run for office by 2030. That's half the number of elected positions nationwide, most of which are at the local level.
Cutraro says she's never thought about running for office herself, but says that her experiences as a mother, teacher and non-profit worker have motivated her to do the work that's needed in order to achieve gender equity in leadership.
"[I became] impatient with slow gains in the overall percentage of women serving office at all levels and with little-to-no evidence of strategic attention going into the long-term game play of building the future pipeline," says the 42-year-old, who serves as a full-time CEO of the non-profit.
In the beginning, she says, the purpose her D.C.-based organization was to focus on a program called "Ask a Woman to Run," where people could use a simple online tool to nominate a woman who they thought should consider running for office. From there, She Should Run would reach out to the recommended woman to talk to her about the idea and address any concerns she had about political leadership.
But after operating that program for a few years, Cutraro realized that convincing women to run was only half the battle. Once the seed was planted in a woman's head, they needed to be connected to information about what to do once you decide you want to run.
"There are a number of incredible organizations that work with women who have already made the decision to run, in terms of helping them get those one-on-one skills, helping them to run a campaign and beyond," she says. "But what we've found is there is a big step that happens before that, where it is both convincing women of what's possible in elected office and also helping them navigate what is the right next step."
In 2015 Cutraro and her team started to think about the resources women needed to help connect the dots. The following year they launched the She Should Run Incubator, a set of online courses to help women develop the leadership, networking and communication skills needed to run for office.
"We were assuming we were about to elect the first female president," says Cutraro. "We knew our work was going to get a lot harder because people would assume 'Job done. Let's move on to the next issue,' when in reality, we still had a very long way to go."
After officially launching the incubator, the organization set a goal to get 100 women into its program by the end of the year. But Cutraro says after an unexpected election outcome, they surpassed that goal and closed out the year with 5,500 participants. Today, she says, a little over 16,000 women have shown interest in the incubator program, and in 2018, more than 130 women who'd participated in the incubator were on ballots.
She Should Run also launched "regional cohorts" throughout the country, bringing groups of women together for a six-month combined virtual and in-person program led by women leaders with political experience. More recently, the organization launched a professional development series, partnering with companies to educate women employees on the steps they can take to earn leadership roles at work and in their communities. Partners in the program include Birchbox and Girls Who Code.
Cutraro says the idea for the program was prompted by research that found that for every eight women who think about running for office, an average of one puts their name on a ballot. "We started thinking through the key places where a conversation about women's leadership is already happening." For most women, she says, that's at the office.
Mary Beth Canty is a management consultant who's seen first-hand the impact She Should Run is having on getting more women into office. After a friend encouraged her to look into the program, Canty participated in the organization's Chicago cohort at the end of 2017 into early 2018.
In April, she ran for the position of Village Trustee for Arlington Heights, Illinois — and she won.
Through She Should Run, Canty says she learned how to effectively communicate her story so that people could understand why she's running and what she wants to accomplish. She says she also learned how to ask for financial backing, which can be a huge hurdle for a lot of people.
"I think, particularly for female candidates, making the ask is a challenge," she says. "We don't always feel comfortable or confident asking people for money or for help."
Cutraro says she's grateful for the record number of women and people of color who ran for and were elected to Congressional offices this year because she's hoping it will encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to do the same.
"Research shows that role models are essential," she says. "What we have seen is a continued growth in our community across the board and incredible diversity in our programs.
"It's not just the women themselves that I am encouraged by. It is a greater community of individuals that are like, 'I want to be part of this moment in time of growth. I'm never going to run for office myself, but I want to see the great women around me do it.'"
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