Life As A Woman Politician, We Have To Work Harder | Interview With Fiona Ma

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Silicon Valley Impressions (SVI): What is like being a women politician?

Fiona Ma (FM): It is not easy being a woman in politics since this is predominantly a male territory, women have to work harder. We have to prove ourselves more. We have to be more assertive. We need to take credit when credit is due. But we also need to make sure other people don’t take credit for work that they did not do.

SVI: Can you give us an example where men and women are different?

FM: The reason we have less women in elected office is because women don’t self-select. Most women, take a few times for community members or others to encourage them to run for office. When they are asked to run, they always have to think about it. They have to go and talk to their families and assess. Men don’t go back and talk to their families normally, they just jump in.

SVI: Because women have more responsibility in the family?

FM: Well, I think it’s a self imposed responsibility that when women decide to run or do anything, women want to do a good job. If women don’t feel like they can give their 100%, women don’t do it. Because they don’t want to fail. They don’t want to look bad. The stress will make them feel that it’s not the right time.

When women run for office, people will ask, “Oh, do you have a family? Do you have kids? If women have small children, they will be asked “how are you going to do the job? How are you going to take care of your kids?” That’s the one barrier for women to run for office. However, nobody asked men that. I mean there are men in elected office that have six kids and people never asked them whether they can be a good father or whether they’re going to stay home and take good care of their children.

Fundraising is also a challenge for women running for offices. Women are not trained to raise money. Women are not good at raising money because women are not brought up asking people for money.

Women also tend to think that if we work hard we will be recognized and we will get the raise and the promotion we need to move to the next level. That’s not always true. In business or in government, you really need a mentor to push you up the ladder. Men think they’re qualified for the job even if they’re not. They feel that they deserve to get paid more money always. We are brought up differently from men.

It is even harder for Asian women. Asian women are taught to be quiet, be a good daughter, study hard, go to school and hopefully get a good job, get married and have kids. Asian men are taught to go out, get into a good school, get the best job, keep moving up the ladder. For Asian women, family comes first. So we’re taught to prioritize things differently.

Politics is an all-encompassing job. It’s 24/7. For example, John Chiang, Betty Yee, Kamala Harris all are very hardworking politicians. We all don’t have kids and we either got married late in life or we’re on our second marriage. Working in public service means that you put the public as your priority over your family and sometimes even over your own health. A politician is kind of like a priest. Your parish and God come first, and then everything else. Government and public servants are also like that.

SVI: You think women who have children tend not to get into politics?

FM: They tend not to get into politics. They tend to wait until their kids are older. For example, because in most households the women are the main caregivers at home. For women with children, it’s very difficult to have a political career. If she’s a single mom, it’s even more difficult.

Women politicians need to have a supportive spouse, usually wealthier so they can hire help or they have family members who can help. Otherwise, they will not choose to be a politician because politics is 24/7. The phone never stops ringing, there are events to go to all the time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekends, holidays, Labor Day, MLK Day or any other holiday. There’s never been a day passed without anybody calls me to go to an event, birthday celebration, a parade, etc.

SVI: Have you experienced workplace discrimination because you’re a woman?

FM: Yes, politics is a man’s society. Most of the elected officials are men, most of the lobbyists in Sacramento are men, and they like to get together and smoke cigars, and go fishing, and play golf.

Women are usually successful running for local office first, Women usually run for a cause or an issue that they’re working on. Maybe it’s their kid’s school, medical care for the community, program for seniors, etc.

If you ask a man why they run, they don’t necessarily have a good reason. The reasons are usually different from a woman, maybe it’s about power; it’s about getting their name out there; it’s about helping their business expand. Women don’t do that. Workplace discrimination happens when we move up. Going from the local level to the state level, people always say “Well, why should we vote for them? Or what have they done? Or can they get elected? Can they raise the money? Who’s on their team?” It’s all these questions instead of “Oh, I like Fiona, I’m supporting Fiona, I support her track record, I think she’s a good person.” It’s never like that, so the discrimination really happens as you keep running for different offices. You have to jump through more and more hoops before people will actually support you and get behind you.

SVI: What kind of skills do you think are necessary for women to thrive?

FM: I think you need to like people. You need to enjoy going to events and helping people. You have to be willing to call people back, you have to want to follow through with issues. If you’re one of these people that cannot be bothered, that you don’t want to answer phone calls after 6pm, you want your weekends to be off, etc. it is going to be very hard for you. Because this is a people job.

To like people and like to be in the community all the time are important elements to succeed. Women also like to work together. I have fourteen staff members and eleven of them are women because we like teamwork. It’s about collaboration, it’s not about ego or who gets credit. We all share the workload and we all want to succeed together. You also need to be an extrovert and be energized by people, this is a good job for you. If you’re an introvert where people wear you out and you need a lot of off-time, this will not be an easy profession for you because the pressures will keep mounting. There are always people who ask you to help and you will always have things to do and places to go. The more you say no the harder it will be for you. You will have an opponent who is going to say that people never see you in the community.

If I want to stay in my position, I have to work hard every day and then my next race will be much easier. My first two races were hard. During my third race I didn’t have anyone running against me. This one so far, I don’t have anyone running against me, but that’s because nobody’s going to outwork me.

SVI: What do you enjoy most about your work and what do you enjoy the least about your work?

FM: I like to campaign. Most people don’t like to campaign because you have to do precinct walking, making phone calls, raising money and then showing up and doing forums, debates, press conferences. I like campaigning because I like putting together my team of volunteers. I like to meet new people and see new things. I don’t like to sit in an office behind a desk. I don’t like to make cold calls, I enjoy that the least. I don’t like calling people I don’t know. The fundraising consultants always want me to put together a list for cold calling. I don’t like cold calling or knocking on doors at homes even though the fundraising consultants always want us to do that.

I like to meet people outside in public: at the parks, in front of the Muni stops, anywhere that’s a public space. I would introduce myself at shopping centers or supermarkets: “Hi, I’m Fiona Ma, have you voted today?” Or “I’m running for office,” I will hand people my flier and people can read it later. Many times when I ring a doorbell, people usually just close their curtains and pretend they’re not home. I don’t like to walk door-to-door or do cold call.

SVI: What advise do you have for young women who want to have a political career?

FM: I definitely think one should find a mentor who can provide guidance. One should start working on campaigns and work in a political office to understand the job. It’s also an important consideration when choosing your spouse or your partner.I was very upfront with my ex-husband that I want to run for office. He was a consultant and he did not want to work a nine to five job going into an office every day because he traveled a lot. We went in knowing what we both wanted. But when the reality hit and I actually got elected, and I was never at home, he didn’t like that. I think picking someone who understand politics, likes politics, wants to be your partner in politics is another important element of success.

SVI: Is your current spouse supportive of you?

FM: Yes. My husband is a firefighter. He’s also a public servant. He works 10 days a month at the fire station. That gives me time to work. I work from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm every day.

In addition, he lives in Los Angeles and I live in San Francisco. I live with my parents now. My parents take care of the house and me and my three dogs. They help to move my car on street cleaning days. I pay my share of the rent and my dad pays all the bills.

I have a good relationship with my parents. I probably wouldn’t see them very much if I din’t live with them. They see me every three or four days a week. They know what I’m doing and I know that they are doing okay.

SVI: How often do you see your husband?

FM: I see my husband once a week for maybe two or three days. He was working on a fire for two weeks. I didn’t see him for two weeks. He’s doing his job which is public safety, I have to understand as well. We both have jobs that are focused on the public and that’s why things work for us.

SVI: Then you agreed together that you won’t have children?

FM: Right. No children.

SVI: You also said you have to be firm. What do you mean by that?

FM: I think there are certain things that you can’t do. I’m not good at saying no. I will always say yes and that has created a lot of work for my staff because they have to prepare me, to drive me, and to staff me. Hiring good people is not easy. Because our political climate is competitive, the people you hire also need to be competitive. During an election, I need to make sure that my staff members are prepared and doing the best job they can. Being independent and self-motivated are also important to be successful. I like people who are self-motivated and have some political ambition too, because then they don’t mind working hard.