By: Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto is a the founder of the startup Solving Equal. She was a Representative for Hawaii from 2012-2018

Earlier this year, our Congresswoman and I were featured on Liz Plank’s “Divided States of Women” in an episode entitled, “Hawaii is the Best State for Women.” Hawaii had the largest number of women holding elective office, a smaller wage gap and better access to health care when compare to other states.

Six months later, we – along with every other woman running against a man in a top of ticket Democratic race – lost for Congress and Governor. Many factors impacted the outcome of the election, but the experience drew attention to the persisting inequities women face when running for office – even in the “best state for women.” They’re the same inequities still facing women in every workplace.

Like many Millennial women, I didn’t pay much attention to those inequalities until the politics of the last few years showed me that nothing will change without deliberate effort. Not only did I ignore gender politics, I thought women who shed light on these inequalities were only inviting greater discrimination. If I worked hard, I could overcome bias as long as I didn’t keep reminding those around me that I was a woman.

Then, I realized I was wrong. Some gender biases are so deeply ingrained that they’re nearly impossible to defy. I might have the best argument at the table, but the chance of that argument being acknowledged or even heard is statistically less. In the time I could work to overcome bias, someone not facing that bias would surpass me in the organization if we were equally capable. The effort I expended to get to a level playing field took away from my finite amount of time and energy, limiting the resources I had to succeed.

The same can be said for racial bias. As an Asian woman entering politics, existing biases against my race and gender weighted me and slowed my progress in ways I didn’t notice when I first started in public office. Being born and raised in diverse Hawaii, I rarely noticed racial bias. But, when I raised my political profile nationally, I learned quickly that I needed to articulate my “real” American credentials because somehow my Asian ancestry called my American-ness into question.

And, of course, biases or unequal gender roles persist even within many of our distinct Asian cultures. While I was raised by a progressive Japanese American father, many other women in our community are held back by gender norms rooted in centuries of tradition. They’re encouraged not to confront or disagree with men in public. If they seek work outside the home, they’re not released from caretaking and other duties typically assigned to female children or spouses. These roles can hold women back whether they conform or not.

As a child, I was fortunate to live in a community where Japanese American women like Patsy Mink and Pat Saiki held political office.  It never occurred to me that I couldn’t run for office because of my ancestry or gender. A Japanese American woman could run for office, but in my mind, she had to be one of “those women” who refused to follow the rules.

These strong, independent women were described with terms like outspoken, aggressive and masculine. It was clear that, even though we voted for them, our community didn’t fully accept their behavior as appropriate and used language that discouraged it. They implied the behavior was un-“ladylike.” My twelve-year-old self decided politics wasn’t a job for me because I wanted to be “girly.” NOTE: We should really stop using both those terms.

Despite my childhood impressions, I did eventually find myself running for public office. And, I quickly found that it’s impossible to avoid getting negatively branded as “outspoken,” “aggressive,” etc. and still be taken seriously as a candidate. Keeping with my twelve-year-old concerns, I actively tried to dodge those labels. I kept my hair long. I was cautious about how I interacted in debates – not too soft but not “scolding.” I learned to convey facts with personal stories instead of presenting them in a way that could be viewed as “lecturing.” As a result, I was disregarded in most rooms because I didn’t seem serious. Or, as more than a few consultants pointed out, I looked too “feminine.”

In contrast, our Congresswoman’s bid for governor was plagued with criticisms that she was “too harsh,” “mean,” and “ambitious.” According to one reporter, her attempts to soften her image were “inauthentic” because of the toughness that she brought to the other positions she held. She was running into all the labels I feared because she never hid her intelligence, and she fought the way she needed to rise through the ranks in a male-dominated field. She still couldn’t break through the barrier and get the votes she needed from our community.

We both lost. We pursued completely different paths to get the same voters and ended up with the same results. I was a likeable, “a good Japanese girl,” but I wasn’t “strong enough.” She was too strong, and it made her “harsh and inaccessible.” To this day, I’ve never seen anyone strike a winning balance. Many factors go into election results, and I certainly don’t believe my gender was the sole reason I lost. But, like in every other career, it was harder to advance. For me, the Congresswoman or many others like us, gender was a liability whether or not we conformed to society’s expectations.

Of course, this is all anecdotal. And, if we want to make real change, we need to take a deep dive into the research and data surrounding gender roles, particularly in minority communities, and how they impact a woman’s ability to get elected. We need to know the metrics our voters use to determine a good leader. We need to understand how we’re conveying information about women leaders and the ways that can impact a girl’s decision to be a lead.

We need to use this research to change the way our community views women. My non-profit, Solving Equal, is working to make that change.

My state has successfully legislated and litigated greater rights for women over decades. Hawaii has earned the designation as the “Best State for Women.” Yet, persistent gender roles stand in the way of complete equality. So, our mission at Solving Equal is to tell our story, investigate the factors still prevent equity and uncover the biases that persist.

As we do our work, I’m going to be hosting a podcast by the same name starting in January to discuss our findings. The podcast will be an investigation into a complicated web of unprecedented progress, cultural roadblocks, personal stories, setbacks, political analysis, history, research data and media coverage. Every week, we’ll talk to women professionals, politicians, academics, strategists and others who can guide us in our search for solutions.

In Hawaii, we find ourselves at a unique crossroads. Much of the legislative work has already been done. Other states have big battles ahead to litigate and legislate equality. Here, it’s time to start tackling that final piece of the puzzle – culture. Our hope is that you’ll help us create a blueprint for cultural change so we can make sure any girl in any state can be any leader she wants.

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