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Women in Politics II: Cultivating Men as Allies

STQ Admin

Si Tú Quieres continues to highlight incredible every day Latinas.  Meet Patricia Campos-Medina. 

Patricia Campos-Medina serves as the President of Latinas United for Political Empowerment (LUPE PAC) in NJ and she is a founding Board Member for PODER PAC, a national political action committee by Latinas for Latinas. She has been active in international, national, and local politics for 20 years and has led and contributed to a number of political and issue based campaigns, including Senator Cory Booker and US Rep. Bill Pascrell. Patricia also directs the Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University and brings her labor union roots, Salvadoran culture and youth migration experience to her leadership. You can follow her on Twitter at @pcamposmedina or e-mail: 

The biggest challenge for women in politics is the fact that there are too few of us at the highest levels of elected office and as leaders or staffers with the two major political parties.

In order to be successful in politics, we need to be intentional about building key relationships with men that turns some of them into our allies to help us move our agendas and to get the votes that we need to be elected to office.

The Reality

The U.S. population is 51 percent female, yet our representation in U.S. Congress is only 16.6 percent.  The trend for Latina women is even worse. A report by Latinas Represent, shows that Latinas comprise just 1% of elected leaders nationwide:

  • There are 435 seats in Congress; 9 are held by Latinas (2 percent)
  • Out of the 7,383 state senators and representatives, 78 are Latina (1.1 percent)
  • 5 out of the 320 statewide executives across the country are Latina (1.5 percent)
  • Only one Latina has ever been elected governor, and
  • No Latina has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate

These numbers are sobering and as the Latino population grows, we must focus our attention on making sure that more Latinas are elected so that we can translate our experiences into policy that impacts our neighborhoods and families. 

Lack of Representation & Impact

Recent newspaper articles have brought attention to the fact that both parties, but especially the Democratic Party, count on the minority vote to win key elections. Yet, their outreach programs don’t necessarily translate into top jobs or contracts for minority consultants.  This lack of diversity translates into campaigns that lack the cultural nuance to reach ethnic communities simultaneously failing to build a bench of political operatives that are diverse and can successfully guide ethnic candidates to win elected office.  Lack of diversity in political campaigns translates into lack of diversity in policy representation at the highest ranks of government.

As a labor political operative who spent time as political consultant, I know first hand how hard it is to compete for those positions. In both roles, my biggest challenge was always navigating the gender bias, the machismo; to stand out and be recognized for what I brought to the table. I survived and thrived by being clear about my purpose for being in the game, but also by learning to build relationships with powerful men that helped me navigate the political process, men who recognized my abilities and empowered me to make decisions on my own terms.

Speaking Truthfully

In my previous blog, I wrote that a key component of learning to play the game of politics was to build alliances to help you accomplish your personal and organizational goals.  In order to expand your circle of influence, you must learn to cultivate some key relationships with powerful men that can help you advocate for your personal goals and accomplish your professional objectives.

My first assignment in politics was given to me by my boss Oscar, who at that time was a top leader with organized labor in Washington DC. He recruited me to join the AFL-CIO’s efforts to mobilize Latino voters in the late 1990s.  I really didn’t know anything about party politics back then, but I was a good organizer. 

During my first assignment somewhere in TX, he got a call telling him I was too problematic and needed to be re-assigned.  When he called me to ask my version of the story, I was specific with him on telling him the problem and offering him a solution. 

He said, “You got it. Stay doing your work and keep making trouble.  As long as you tell me what you need to get the work done, I got your back.”  And with that, Oscar and I began a real partnership.  Even though I was very young and he knew I would make some mistakes, he trusted my instincts and my abilities to complete my assignment and be successful.

As I moved up in the ranks of organized labor, I emulated that same relationship with all my future bosses. I focused my time on building relationships with my superiors that were based on mutual trust, clear understanding of the organizational goals, and on accomplishing key victories that would solidify my record as an effective political operative.

How to Cultivate Men as Allies

Here are some tips on how to cultivate relationships with men so they will invest in your success and see you as a key partner in helping them meet their organizational goals,

Focus on Your Sphere of Influence: An effective leadership practice demands that you focus your energy on what you can control, what you can influence.  There are too many leaders who spend time worrying on all that is wrong around them and lose focus of their ultimate objective.  You cannot fix what is outside of your control, but as you accomplish small goals, your sphere of control and power increases and eventually your circle of influence will expand. If you are new to a campaign, fully understand your assignment, the power dynamics of the campaign and w here you fall in the pecking order of the decision- making process.  Do a power analysis and identify where you are positioned on the power map. Identify who are the individuals that have influence and build relationships with them.

Be a Problem Solver: If you identify a problem, find the reasons for it and what needs to get done to overcome it.  Offer your leader specific solutions and volunteer to lead the efforts to solve it. Set a timeline, with specific deadlines, and stick to it.  And if you make a mistake, or something doesn’t get done on time, own your responsibility for it. Making excuses for why a task wasn’t completed on time, or blaming someone else for your failure to meet your deadline, is not a good leadership practice.

Be Clear About Your Boundaries: Being a young, aggressive and smart woman in politics is hard. You attract all kinds of attention from men.  You then must carefully balance being friendly with keeping your boundaries.  Know exactly what your boundaries are, and if someone steps over them, stop them right away.  I once was negotiating with an elected official, and afterwards one of his top staffers suggested I needed to be friendlier.  I knew exactly what he meant.  I politely told him: “If you stop right now, I’ll forget this conversation ever happened.  If you continue, there will be consequences.”  Needless to say, he knew what I meant.  He never made a sexual advance at me again and I continued to engage with him as an equal until we got the work done. 

Know How to Handle Passive Aggressive Behavior: My greatest challenge as a political operative has been handling passive aggressive behavior from men. You know what that behavior looks like and it is hard to call it out and stop it:  male colleagues ignore your ideas, talk over you and never give you credit for the work you have done. They exclude you from meetings or give you the run around on your budget needs. And if you have the nerve to call them out on it, you become a troublemaker and therefore unworthy of their trust. 

The most effective strategy to handle this behavior is to leave a trail of your work performance. Make sure you understand your assignment and you spell out to the team leaders exactly what you need to accomplish the task. In every meeting speak up and make sure the team knows your progress is commensurate with your resource allocation. And if you see someone not getting credit for his/her contributions to the team, find a way to elevate their work.  Look out for other women in the group and build real relationships with them so that eventually you have others in the group who see you as their ally as well.

Build an Inner Circle of Male Advisors: And finally, build an inner circle with people who care about your success and support you. Some of them should be men who know and appreciate your work performance.  My former boss became my mentor in navigating the politics of Labor and gave me plenty of advice on how to handle the rough and tumble world of politics.  I also became close friends with several candidates and campaigners whom I could reach out for advice or guidance.

Cultivating men as mentors and allies is key because they have insights into their fellow men “groupthink” that we do not. Getting their opinions, or their advice on how to tackle a difficult situation helped me navigate key relationships.  I might not always have followed their exact recommendations, but I learned that just by listening to them, I was able to think through my own strategy. And if one male leader wanted to block me from being inside a circle of influence, I always triangulated another relationship to figure out how to get to the circle.

Once I met my husband Bob, he became my sounding board, breaking down situations and offering less confrontational ways to respond.  I learned from him to think as a chess player, and to envision the ultimate outcome I am trying to construe before I react to triggering behavior.

Nurture Female Relationships: But as important as male allies are to help you be successful in politics, you must also cultivate a cadre of women, a tribe, who lift you up.  Just remember this anonymous saying,  “Behind every successful woman, there is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.”

My tribe is diverse -- high school and college friends, sorority sisters, women work colleagues, other women activists and my ultimate rock, my mother.

Build your tribe and it will keep you grounded and strong.

Your turn: How have male allies supported you in your own leadership development?

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